The automotive technology world is so entrenched in big oil and big business it’s hard to imagine it any other way. Yet the entrepreneurial spirit is still alive and kicking, even in the dogmatic auto marketplace.
Entrepreneurs and startups in any niche can stand to learn from those who are taking big risks in an industry where dinosaurs are the standard.
In such an industry the stakes are about as high as it gets. The main manufacturers are invested in staying on top of trends. GM, Chevy, Honda, Toyota, Hyundai—each have a ‘green car’ on the market; Volkswagen is reportedly rolling out models compatible with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, the competing smart-device-meets-car platforms from Google and Apple.
Google and Apple, meanwhile, are both suiting up to play the game with driverless and electric cars (not much is currently known about the Apple car except that it will undoubtedly be electric). All of these major developments spell tough odds for auto industry startups.
But the tenacity of the human spirit laughs in the face of the odds. History is riddled with stories of big giants falling hard. Here are two companies working hard to disrupt the automotive zeitgeist.
Wrightspeed Disrupts by Changing Lanes
What makes Ian Wright and Wrightspeed, a San Jose, CA-based powertrain company, special is the story of twists and turns, associated with his aims to design the most advanced fuel-saving vehicle technology on the road. Wright co-founded Tesla with Elon Musk and others.
The mission was to bring high-powered, high-tech electric vehicles to the market. Wright broke off from Tesla and started making specialized electric sports cars with tons of torque. These cars were super-expensive and the market was limited. They didn’t get enough initial interest from investors.
Far from giving up or falling victim to tunnel-vision, Wright changed his business focus. In 2011 he started making powertrains to transform commercial trucks into electric hybrids—to electrify the commercial trucking industry and bring it into the 21st century. And he hasn’t stopped innovating.
He recently unveiled brand new tech for powertrains, a generator that uses microturbines you’d normally find in jet planes. Unlike the previous generator he was using, Wright owns the intellectual property rights to this one.
The commercial trucking freight industry will be hard to break into, with major manufacturers like Freightliner and Volvo in the fray. But Wright’s crossover looks prescient because Obama has introduced regulations amounting to a 44% required emissions cut for trucks by the year 2027. Wrightspeed’s tech easily helps clear that hurdle. An Isuzu delivery truck saw a 300% increase in fuel efficiency with one of his electric powertrains.
By ceaselessly striving to innovate and anticipate what’s coming next, Wright’s venture represents the type of chutzpah entrepreneurs should emulate.
Local Motors Aims to Democratize Auto Manufacturing
A true underdog in auto manufacturing, Local Motors – headquartered in Phoenix, Arizona – was founded in 2007 . What this automaker is doing is something few people could have predicted ten years ago. Their mission is to disrupt the auto industry. Their approach could be the cutting room floor for the democratization of auto manufacturing.
The approach is all about community—an open-source take on creating cars—and they’re harnessing a technology that at first blush seems entirely unrelated to cars: 3-D printing.
Local Motors’ goal is to use 3-D printing to create an autonomous, electric car. They have two microfactories for experimenting and building prototypes. When it comes to creative, they’re all about collaboration.
Partnering with Cincinnati Incorporated and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, they produced the world’s first 3-D printed electric car. At the International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago, if you were in attendance you could have watched the printer build Strati (Italian for layers) over a period of 44 hours. The car has less than 50 parts and can go 120 miles on a single charge.
Local Motors facilitates an open discussion between engineers, designers, and inventors in order to disrupt the auto industry. They do the leg-work, and they make sure the ideas come to fruition.
Recently, they revealed the winner of the Project Redacted competition to develop a new 3-D electric design. First place was decided by a panel of judges and community votes, and the award was $7,500. More importantly, from there they launched the Local Motors Co-created University Vehicles collaboration with three regional universities.
This collaboration could bring us the autonomous, 3-D printed, electric vehicle. What it’s driving at is a DIY approach to crafting cars. If a 3-D printer can produce a car, in the future we may very well be able to use our own autonomy to put out the clean, powerful vehicle of choice.
Take that, giants.
Innovators Lead the Way
Will Wrightspeed and Local Motors be able to succeed? You won’t find any investment tips here, but what these innovators can do is show us a way forward. They’re aiming a fresh slingshot at the old giants.
They’re using new technology to grapple with the powers-that-be. They’re taking risks, engaging with the community, and constantly seeking to make friends with the idea of change. This makes sense as a model of entrepreneurship. After all, we’re all changing, all of the time.
This article has been edited and condensed.
Daniel Matthews is a freelance writer from Boise, Idaho with a passion for changing the world through writing and sharing ideas. He’s written for Social Media Today, Social Media Impact, Datafloq, and Smart Data Collective. Connect with @danielmatthews0 on Twitter.