Why this innovator thinks the car of the future rides on open source
We were promised a long time ago that by the 2020s we would have flying cars in every city. Popular culture was filled with images of future cities with massive and complicated highways across the skies. Yet with only a couple more years to go before the change of the decade, it's now clear that the car of the future won't be flying between skyscrapers, in fact, the car of the future won't even be made for us.
This interview took place during the APIDays conference in Paris, an event focused on how we can design sustainable technology for business and society.
Fernanda Marin: What are the biggest changes today pushing for a new mobility paradigm?
Tin Hang Liu: I come from the traditional automotive industry. I used to work in one of the biggest design and engineering companies, making beautiful cars in Italy for the biggest auto OEMs. However, I decided to move to Silicon Valley when we realized that the car of the future was going to be nothing like a Ferrari or a Lamborghini.
Basically, we are moving towards a paradigm shift from car ownership to mobility becoming a service. Players like Uber, Lyft and Didi are defining a new massive trend in the automotive industry. People are less willing to buy cars, especially in big cities since we all have in our pockets powerful computers with connectivity that can take us from point A to B with a few taps. This has radically changed the scenario of how we have to design and engineer vehicles. This is why the objective of Open Motors is to create the best vehicle for services. Open data, open source and APIs play a huge role in this, because we believe that the cars of the future will be like computers on wheels.
Marin: So, if the car of the future will be more like a computer, how will that work?
Liu: Our core assumption, based on emerging trends around the world, is that there will be a shift from ownership to service. In this new paradigm, the way cars are made will definitely change because our priorities as consumers will change. You’ll care less for big car brands and start to pay more attention to the quality of the service you are getting from point A to B.
Hence we are not trying to sell vehicles to final consumers, we want to sell vehicles to companies that offer mobility as a service. This means that cars in the future won’t be built for individual consumers because people won’t even buy cars.
With this in mind, we interviewed the big players in the New Mobility industry to better understand their needs. The problem we found was ingrained in the classic business model of selling cars. For example, if you’re using a car as an Uber driver, the lifespan of your vehicles drops dramatically, from the average of 10 years to two years, resulting from heavy usage for providing services. The problem is that after two years it’s so expensive to fix the car that it’s better to buy a new one, and this is completely unsustainable.
For us, the car of the future should be more like an aeroplane, designed and engineered for services and heavy usage, and the key part here is inscribing modularity right from the design. Just like after several flights you can replace turbines, the entire cockpit technology, change the interior for better infotainment or more comfortable seats. We are bringing this vision for modular cars in big cities, and for the big players in the ride-sharing economy. We want to make big fleets of cars that can be upgraded and adapted to meet consumers’ needs, one that last 10 times longer so we don’t have to throw away literally millions of vehicles every year. That’s why we believe an open and modular approach is fundamental at the B2B level, just as Linux is doing in the server industry because everything is becoming a service.
Marin: What is the business model behind your open source approach?
Liu: There are many open source companies that are profitable. We believe that open source is a fundamental approach to speed up everything. Linux Foundation changed the server industry, and they boosted infrastructure and services around the world like banking and financial systems. So based on this, the business model is pretty simple: We encourage companies to use our technology, but in the end, even if we provide all the documentation and sources, when you go to the market you need to have the hardware, not only the software, so the keyword for us is "aggregate." In the automotive industry especially, quantities are something that you have to consider.
We are the missing link between tier one suppliers and a very long tail of new players that are trying to combine more projects based on the same core technology, so everybody can have better pricing and easier sourcing of the parts.
A lot of companies now coming from the tech industry trying to get into the automobile industry don’t necessarily know how to make cars, so we can provide services to help them from the sketching of a vehicle to prototype development, road legal certification, crash test and even set up an assembly line.
Another area we are exploring to diversify our business model is to become a vehicle fleet provider for ride-sharing apps. These platforms are all zero-asset companies that rely on drivers absorbing the cost and risk of owning the cars so they can only focus on the algorithm, the community, etc. But things will start charging soon with the arrival of autonomous vehicles because no drivers mean no more cars.
So there is a big challenge we are helping them solve there, trying to find a new business model where probably we’ll be owning the cars. It’s the most logical solution as we’re in control of the software and hardware, and these companies would only have to pay per kilometer. This also allows for more flexibility and adaptability to each city.
We are also considering and really studying the blockchain technology because we believe all the transactions can be secured with this technology. We’d like to use blockchain applied to supply chain management, so we can be very transparent and focus on the safety reliability of every single part.
We are also considering and really studying the blockchain technology because we believe all the transactions can be secured with this technology. We’d like to use blockchain applied to supply chain management, so we can be very transparent and focus on the safety reliability of every single part.We are not trying to sell vehicles to final consumers, we want to sell vehicles to companies that offer mobility as a service.
Marin: Great that you mention security. The recent months have been plagued with a series of hacker attacks and software viruses, and one cannot help but wonder what would happen once fully connected cards are widely deployed? Is there a way to prevent major issues of security?
Liu: I think security is kind of a utopia. You cannot really have 100 percent security. The interesting part is the approach of security; if you have a closed approach, it is going to be harder and slower to fix things.
The biggest challenge for us is that we are not only dealing with classic car security, like how cars work under extreme conditions, airbags, breaks, etc. We are also talking about data security; how we can protect all the information that is collected on these new type of cars, from the identity of the individuals who are driving them, the performance on the vehicle, to economic transactions, and many more.
We are trying to use what has been done in other sectors, like the financial and health sector, in terms of how information is being secured. Most of the recent security breaches are because those companies or institutions were not using the latest technology to protect themselves. We want to use what is top of the line now and get into the market as fast as possible and in an open source environment, we can do that much faster.
For us, the cars of the future are like servers with four wheels providing a service 24/7, so we cannot adopt a closed approach like Tesla or Nissan have done, because it is very limited. Making an analogy with the computer industry, for us, they are making beautiful shining machines for ownership, like a MacBook Pro or an iPhone X, but you cannot use these products for heavy usage and services, like running a banking system.
Our ultimate goal is to inspire and help define new standards in the industry; to invite Auto OEMs, tier one suppliers and IT companies to adopt this open mentality, so we can all do innovation faster.
You can watch Tin Hang Liu’s full keynote at the API Days here.
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