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John Rogers and a dream of a new auto industry

I’m in Providence, Rhode Island today speaking at BIF-5 – the Business Innovation Factory’s fifth annual storytelling conference. I’ll be doing my best to blog when not on stage.

Jay Rogers is dedicated to transforming the auto industry. He shows us video of stories about the collapse of the US car industry to show us “what I’m up against in starting a car company today.” These headlines outline the “doubt and disbelief that it can be done differently.” He tells us, “If you don’t think its sad, terrible and destructive of value, you’re probably not living in this country today.”

“I have trouble hearing when people tell me something is improbable.”

Rogers tells us that his story starts ten years ago in 1999 as a US Marine. He was an infrantryman, removing explosives from the road. And he befriended a Shia muslim named Saffa who worked in the camp. One day on the way to work, two thugs pulled over Saffa’s car and shot his three companions. They told him that they’d shoot him and his family if he continued working with the coalition forces. Saffa came to work the next day, and said, “I decided to stand up for my people, my family, my future and came to work.”

It’s no surprise to anyone in this audience that transportation uses 71% of imported and domestic oil, he tells us. Cars and light trucks use almost all of it, and 60% of what we import is used in cars. “If we can fix this, we can get away from the two-bit thugs and towards energy independence.”

Rogers comes by his love for the automobile honestly – his grandfather owned the Indian motorcycle company, and helped invent some techniques to communicate with customers, including a newsletter that took feedback via quizzes and email – he calls this “newsletter 2.0”. His grandfather “gave me the curse – the curse of Preston Tucker,” the belief that Americans could build revolutionary, innovative automobiles. He confesses his shame that America, as a nation of technical innovators, will have a legacy of “creating milquetoast, inefficient cars.” The problem is that “cars haven’t come into the slow-food revolution” – we don’t have people like Martha Stewart telling us that we can do things ourselves. Other fields do have this culture – there’s a community of people who will encourage you to build and fly your own airplanes – why can’t we do this in car culture?

It’s hard to create innovation in the automotive industry – you want to be nimble, to start small in a business that requires massive capital expenditure. The key, Rogers tells us, is to find ways to keep people from being compulsive when they buy cars – you need them to plan ahead, to buy as they do with computers from Dell. “You can’t shove people’s head in a car and tell them, ‘you love this f-ing car'” – instead, follow Eisenhower’s advice: “Pull the string and it will follow wherever you with. Push it, and it will go nowhere at all.”

The motto of Rogers’s company, Local Motors, is “Make Cool Cars”. COOL is an acronym, for “Community, Open, Ownership, Local.” The company is based in Southeastern Massachusetts and works very closely with a community of local innovators, who love to come and talk about cars. They host design competitions and prize-based innovation systems. They’ve generated 44,000 shared designs, shared via creative commons. In the spirit of openness, they’re committed to “liberating cars to be a platform for the specialty automotive equipment market,” where he sees data about standards as a limiting factor.

To transform cars, we need to transform ownership. Harley Davidson loans perform better than GM ones, because Harley owners have a much better sense of brand identity. We like brands we identify with and brands that are local. “What’s cool in Boston is not cool in NYC. You need to be local, from the street.” And so local motos is building local microfactories – he encourages people to come to “our burgers, cars and welding events”. These factories are “in your community, in your face”, and have a close feedback loop with customers. They will create local jobs, local manufacturing, local support, local recycling and end of life cycle for the vehicles.

Rogers is committed to building cars 5 times faster, with a hundreth of the capital. They’re bringing a car called “the Rally Fighter” to the market – they’ve got 22 orders already. While they might only bring 75 cars to the market at a time, this is a move towards a tipping point,
showing that we can innovate in manufacturing, as well as software.