Thursday 2 July 2009

Riversimple hydrogen car revolutionises auto industry

Riversimple urban car
Riversimple is not just an electric car. It’s founder, Hugo Spowers, is setting out to do nothing less than rewrite the rules of the entire automobile industry.

I met Mr Spowers two years ago when I was lucky enough to spend an entire weekend learning about his radical concepts for the design, manufacture and ownership of cars.

His ambition is so unique and so grand that it became the centrepiece of a business school competition, pitting teams of MBAs from supposedly the best European business schools against each other. I was part of the IMD team that went along.

There are three essential components to Riversimple.
  1. Vehicles based on hydrogen fuel cells
  2. Open Source engineering
  3. A leasing model of ownership
As though an electric car based on a hydrogen fuel cell is not sufficiently innovative, he wants us to put an end to the wastefulness of short-term car ownership; and he’s planning to let anyone make full commercial use of the designs.

The car industry got stuck in an expensive loop of investment in plant with high fixed costs. So the imperative for manufacturers was to crank out as many new vehicles as possible and get us to buy them.

So it then became a contest between the rivals to increase capacity. But with too many cars being built, they had to come up with novel ways to get us to buy them until they became financial services businesses with loss-making manufacturing divisions.

Riversimple tackles this by saying car design is no different to Drupal, PHP or MySQL. Just take the building blocks and use them as you like. If you make improvements, you make them available to Riversimple, thereby encouraging the cycle of innovation that has made OS IT development not only a cheaper solution but also one that delivers better performance.

What’s more, because we only lease the car, it becomes the responsibility of the manufacturer to make a car that is easier to repair and has a longer, less troublesome life, since it’ll be their responsibility to fix any problems. How cool is that!

Back in 2007, I was a hopeful sceptic, entirely convinced that he was right but without any belief that he could pull it off.

I didn’t expect I’d ever see the name of Hugo Spowers again until I read a piece on the BBC website about the unveiling of his urban car a couple of weeks ago. Riversimple is shortlisted for the TechCrunch Europas Best Cleantech start-up. Whether it wins the award is of little importance. What matters is that we shake up an industry that is little changed since the industrial revolution.