KAWASAKI, Japan--If open sourcing works for the Linux computer operating system, Japanese engineer Hiroshi Shimizu wagers, it also will work for electric vehicles.
His idea: bring automakers and suppliers together in a brain trust that will jointly develop a new eight-wheeled electric car by 2011 and share any resulting technology breakthroughs.
The brain trust will be SIM-Drive Corp., a start-up that Shimizu founded in September.
Participating companies will chip in ¥20 million (about $215,000 at current exchange rates) and one engineer to jointly develop the prototype vehicle. They then have the right to adopt any technology that has been co-developed, and SIM-Drive will make money by licensing the technology to third parties.
"The goal is to spread the electric-vehicle technology in a way that is very close to an open-source architecture," Shimizu said in an interview at his laboratory here south of Tokyo. "Everyone can join, contribute and take from the program."
Open sourcing leverages collaborative input with the incentive of letting them share the recipe for the end product. The technique is best known for its success in creating and updating the popular Linux operating system.
Shimizu has been developing electric cars for 30 years, mostly with Japan's Keio University. His latest creation, built in 2004, is the eight-wheeled Eliica, powered by a lithium ion battery.
As president and CEO of SIM-Drive--short for Shimizu In-wheel Motor-Drive--he will announce partner companies in January and begin building a new concept car due by the end of 2010. SIM-Drive aims to start producing that car in 2013, Shimizu said. The company has 20 employees now, but that is expected to expand as partners sign up.
Eight is the new four
With its new electric vehicle, SIM-Drive hopes to build on key features of its Eliica electric vehicle.
- Eight small wheels instead of four large ones, to create more cabin space
- In-wheel motors to save space and reduce loss of mechanical energy
- Flat aluminum frames that are hollow, to hold the batteries
- Fast-charging lithium ion batteries from Toshiba
Shimizu said more than 20 companies have agreed to join SIM-Drive, including two carmakers and several parts makers. He declined to identify the companies but said two are from Taiwan and the rest from Japan. An additional 10 are considering membership.
The upcoming SIM-Drive prototype will build on Shimizu's previous research, including his use of flat aluminum frames that house the batteries and in-wheel motors.
There are several benefits to existing carmakers, Shimizu said. First, they can extend the range of their own electric vehicles by using SIM-Drive technologies. Second, they can bypass years of research by adopting the in-wheel motors that Shimizu has been fine-tuning since 1988.
But judging by the Eliica, much development work remains. The car's greatest claim to fame is its 200-mph-plus top speed--not exactly a benchmark of market practicality.
The Eliica's flat frame is billed as an advantage because it allows a multitude of differently shaped body shells to be mounted on top. But the need for streamlined aerodynamics means a tight fit for passengers in the four-seat Eliica. That also constrains the use of rear storage space.
In the end, cost will be a determining factor. Critics suggest having motors in each wheel, for instance, will cost more than having one motor in the engine bay, like the Nissan Leaf.
Mass production will drive down costs. But Shimizu said the simplicity of his flat-frame body structure gives his design a big cost advantage from the start. SIM-Drive is aiming for a price of about $16,100 for the eight-wheeled electric car, without the battery.