Why you don’t want your electric car to be open source


Tesla Roadsters

Updated: I’ve recently seen a rise in the discussion about the open source movement around electric cars, and cars in general. This article in GreenBiz (originally on Txchnologist) looks at an open source project for plug-in vehicles called Tumanako and the open source car design and manufacturing project Local Motors has been around for awhile. While these projects are all well and good (I fully support the open source movement in general), for the electric car to be a mainstream success it needs to follow the closed Apple model, not the open Google model.

If you’re not techie insider, I’ll briefly rehash the Google/Apple scenario. Google has long had a philosophy of making systems and software open and transparent, which in theory leads to the ability to tap into the minds of more and more developers — the idea is that the collective wisdom and passionate creators will deliver the best stuff out of the crowd. Apple, on the other hand, supports a closed system as a way toward better design and simplicity — Apple gadgets just work seamlessly, like magic, but they’re tightly controlled and mostly only work within their own ecosystems.

The mainstream electric car needs to support the closed, magic — it just works! — model. Why? First off, there’s little room for beta software mistakes in the automotive transportation world. An electric car that shuts down or freezes up because of half-baked software is the equivalent of a lawsuit or a PR nightmare.

Fisker Karmas

Electric car startup Fisker Automotive (which is not open source at all) has struggled in recent months partly because of software glitches, leading to some of its early adopter customers venting online, and a variety of negative press. The equivalent of Google launching a beta project onto the web, and the ecosystem of developers playing with and perfecting the tool, doesn’t really work for a mainstream car.

Yes, in a niche DIY community, open sourcing ideas about cars and electric cars is great, but I’m talking about the future of the mass produced electric car. The Nissan all-electric LEAF and GM’s extended range electric Volt are about the most mainstream, standard cars we have out there. I’ll also clarify that I’m talking about the design and creation of the car, not the ecosystem around the car’s data, which I think will eventually be an interesting and growing platform.

Secondly, for the electric car to go mainstream, it can’t continue to be pushed by the DIY, plug-in community, which is the equivalent of the open source tinkerer in the car world. Through our Green:Overdrive Show we’ve championed the DIY electric car folks, from putting a plug on a Prius, to stripping down funky cars and filling them up with batteries. And about four years ago former Intel Chairman Andy Grove compared the grassroots plug-in hybrid vehicle movement to the 1970s-era Northern California Homebrew Computer Clubs that paved the way for the personal computer.

But I hope the electric vehicle movement has finally started to move beyond that homebrew stage. Nissan has sold 27,000 LEAFs worldwide, with 11,000 of those in the U.S. GM hopes that it will soon start selling 3,000 Volts per month, with a record month of sales of 2,289 Volts in March.

Tesla (s TSLA) is the electric car company that most resembles Apple’s model — make an electric car and a high-end brand with a cult-like following (yes, the following is still small) and try to protect the brand as it moves into the mainstream. Tesla held a successful IPO in the Summer of 2010, and its stock traded as high as $40 per share last month.



What’s insanely ironic about this is that Apple’s Mac OS X, clearly the most stable workstation OS out there, is based on many, many open source products. The article is entirely inaccurate, as are many of the comments. Read up, folks.


So you want your car to be RELIABLE? Let’s get some reliability stats:

Open, open, open, open, open, closed, closed, open, open, open.

Click “see full table” for more. 32 of the top 40 are open, and 2 others based on open software.

Want to avoid “An electric car that shuts down or freezes up because of half-baked software”? Better avoid half-baked closed-source software.

Salafrance Underhill

The marketing meme that claims that Apple ‘Just Works’ is, like all good religious dogma, widely believed, but not so well-founded. Apple’s strongest suits are user-interface design and their industrial design aesthetic. OS/X is a competent operating system which, as many have already pointed out, heavily relies on its competent open source core. Their prior offering, OS/9, had been technically inferior to the then extant open-source and Microsoft offerings for years – it used an archaic cooperative task-switching model which relied on all participating applications *behaving*, and until the later incarnations it lacked protected memory. It *sucked*.

The hardware, while beautiful, suffers from the desire of the manufacturer to keep as much of its life-cycle in-house as the consumer will bear. My experience was that motherboard failures were *very* expensive to fix. I love some of the designs that Apple has introduced over the years and hope to add a number of them to my collection when I have the room, but Apple has a very clear commitment to planned obsolescence and to keeping control out of the consumer’s hands. We already have an manifest example of their philosphy in the automotive world – the Smart Car – the whole point of an open-source car is to the design to share the design burden and to render the final product customisable to individual needs. This is not Apple.


Despite how the author’s profile info sounds, she seems to have absolutely no idea not only about open source software and how and why it works, but also about how software is developed in general.
Not to mention the obvious logical mistake of “strategy and execution” that clintricker pointed out.

As a result, the article builds a claim on totally misunderstood assumptions. Misleading at best.

Gordon Messmer

Katie, I hope that some of the comments here illustrate the fallacy of your article, and that you will print a retraction.

You compare Apple’s system to Google’s, and suggest that Apple’s product is superior because it is closed source. Can you name one feature of Android that is the responsibility of a third party, or describe any way that Android (not a derivative thereof, but Android itself) would be better if the source code were not available to us? If not, then you must recognize that your argument is without basis.

Your “first” argument contradicts itself. You start with the argument that there is no room for “beta” software, and support that argument with the poor quality of a closed software product. Does that not sufficiently illustrate that we do not want our electric cars to be closed systems?

Surely the same argument could be made of the Internet. If the Internet as a whole were prone to failures, then it would be useless and users would not be interested. Yet, ISC Bind is an open source product that powers by far most of the internet. Apache httpd and other open web servers run most web servers. These products are known for their stability and quality.

Quality is not a function of whether the working of a product is made secret or published. Quality is a result of good design, of testing, and of commitment to fixing flaws. Your article supports flawed arguments about open source products, supported neither by logic nor by evidence. It is a disservice to your own reputation to stand behind such arguments.


“The mainstream electric car needs to support the closed, magic — it just works! — model. Why? First off, there’s little room for beta software mistakes in the automotive transportation world. An electric car that shuts down or freezes up”

How did you draw the (wrong) conclusion that the open software was somehow more likely to fail than the closed software? How do you conclude that *limiting* the number of eyes on the source code somehow makes bugs more likely to be found. This flies in the face of reality…

“Electric car startup Fisker Automotive (which is not open source at all) has struggled in recent months partly because of software glitches, leading to some of its early adopter customers venting online, and a variety of negative press.”

So maybe the closed model isn’t better after all?

This article is filled with so many logical fallacies I don’t even have time to go through them all. Simply rubbish.

Dyrver Eriksson

I would rather buy the open-source car than the closed source one, I’m just not happy about NOT being able to figure out why a certain component stopped working (closed source) It’s much more fun and helpful getting easy to read error messages once it is running.

Arthur Dent

Oh my god…. of all the FUD we get to read every week, the pungent aroma of this pile of manure is astounding.

Someone sent it this morning when we got to work and we just finished our working lunch and it was the source for much amusement. Its always nice to have a laugh at work and the 15 engineers and 19 developers present were howling of laughter.

What made if funnier is that one of our engineers is going to work at CERN for the next year. You might have heard of CERN.
He is a contributor to Scientific Linux CERN 6 (you can find their distro here http://linux.web.cern.ch/linux/ ) and after reading this claptrap, he said he was worried now about going because CERN uses free software on a MASSIVE scale for their mission-critical applications. The multibillion Large Hadron Collider runs on Linux as well as on their 25,000 server farm and if FLOSS isnt safe for a Hyundai maybe he’s risking his life and that of the whole planet in case ‘something freezes up’.

Sub-atomic particle research is reknowned he said for being run with “half-baked software” so we should all be very afraid..

But you know how it goes: many big companies are cheap and dont want to pay for ‘better’ closed source software.

You would never see big institutions involved in big money like the NY Stock Exchange, London Stock Exchange, Amazon, Cisco, IBM, use open source software because they…ohh, wait… THEY DO run on FLOSS!!!

Those hippies at teh US Dept of War also use, heck, youll find it in most of the submarine fleet and at the FAA. Wait till the planes start falling and the subs start sending missiles by accident.

And just imagine how good Avatar could have been as all of Peter Jacskons movie at his WETA Digital compound if he didnt use Linux servers and desktops (all the propietary and non-propietary software like Nuke, Shake, Houdini, and Cinepaint, Maya, Houdini, Nuke, RenderMan, Massive, BaseLight, DaVinci Resolve, Smoke ALL run on Linux on top of their own inhouse tools.)?

Well just skip the part where someone explains that Apple is built on TOP of open source base (heck, their browser is taken-coopted from FLOSS) and CUPS is open too.

I could go on and on but the sheer idiocy of this article is making me nauseous.
Now, isnt there some pretty phone, USB coffee warmer or other gadget you can write about? Stick to toys before you go wandering off into the deep end.

Kiki Novak

Apple essentially took an existing open source operating system called FreeBSD, created a graphical interface called “Aqua” on top of it, then put an Apple logo on the result. Now there’s your closed source model.

Joshua "Youlysses" S. Grant

I am a member of the “Free Software Movement” and don’t support the ideas, nor naming coventions used by the “Open Source Movement”. That being said, besides the terminology I would have to also argue nearsy ewerything claimed.

Starting off I’m just gonna go out on a limb, and assume you are not someone with a CompSci background.

“The mainstream electric car needs to support the closed, magic — it just works! — model. Why? First off, there’s little room for beta software mistakes in the automotive transportation world. An electric car that shuts down or freezes up because of half-baked software is the equivalent of a lawsuit or a PR nightmare.”

*So besides the google/apple “explination” (which clintricker covered quite nicely ), this was the first thing to catch my eye, because it shows a basic misunderstanding how faif software is developed.

The idea that non-complete “beta software” would be released on a production machiene, a production machiene so IMPORTANT to the saftey of the consumer is nothing but idiotic.

A VAST majority of Free Software has releases. In between these releases there is a series of rapid development and testing, and rapid development and testing, and rapid development … and testing, till a piece of software is deemed as “done”.

This much more often than not produces a product that is not only more secure, but more stable than it’s Cousins.

To someone who understands Faif software, they understand that this model IS supperior to “Closed Source” in every way; From techinical, to Pratical, to Ethical, there really is no exuse not to use use it. (Unless you’re a monopoly. ;-) )


The author obviously hasn’t got a clue about anything open source. This is amateur reporting full of baseless claims and nonsense. Please actually understand a topic before attempting to write about it.

There is nothing “beta” about open source software. Closed model software in fact suffers from more bugs, glitches, and failures. The only reason people think Apple’s software “just works” is because Apple intentionally hides the failures.


I think you shoot holes in your own argument with the Fisker Moters example. That’s a closed source example in the field that doesn’t meet quality requirements. There are plenty of examples in both the open and closed source world or both buggy and quality software. I’ve even seen studies showing open source software in certain fields contains fewer bugs than closed source. Look to Linux and the Apache web server as examples of quality open source software. As others have pointed out, even Apple’s OS is based on open source.

That said, the economics of electric cars probably makes the closed source model more competitive. Software costs would make up a relatively small portion of the cost, and it’s probably not a very price-sensitive target market.


Open source is in all kinds of things around us. TiVo is powered by Linux. So are lots of other things including various set top boxes, home office wifi routers, Palm WebOS, personal media players, ebook readers (Kindle/Nook, etc), GPS navigators (Tom Tom and Garmin are known to run Linux), and much more that I won’t list here.

See this just for a list of Sony products with open source:
Click on Television for a breathtaking list of TVs with Linux inside since 2003. Click on a particular model to download the source code from Sony’s website.

Let me mention: Android. Now on 250 Million phones and activating over 850,000 per day (or over 9.8 per second).

I hope that’s enough open source for you. It’s already in everything. Gasp! Even in some cars already!


I can’t disagree more. The author is making the naive “security through obscurity” argument. If you just bury your head far enough into the sand everything will be magically better.

The closed source model will make electric cars much more dangerous. If all car manufacturers were forced to open source their software the entire world could help them find potentially life saving bugs and software flaws. If they continue to be closed source these potentially life threatening bugs will go unnoticed until enough accidents/problems/break downs force the companies to review their source code.

Apple is not successful because they are closed source. Apple has bugs in their software just like every other company. All software has bugs. But when it comes to closed source software it is much harder and slower to find and fix those bugs. Apple makes amazing products because of their execution, testing, and quality control.

Closed source software and open source software both have bugs. Closed source software is just better at hiding and covering up those bugs than open source. Where would you feel safer – in a car whose source code is open and has been reviewed by every interested person in the world, or in a closed source car whose source has not been reviewed and the manufacturer is under time constraints to release their code to make money?


The major flaw is your argument is to equate open source software to beta software.

Beta software is a by-product of the software development cycle and it is quite possible to have Beta closed source product as well.

Would you rather have am operating system that is built and by 3 guys in a smokey room, or by a community of (sic) thousands that can point out errors and optimise various portions of the system.

I support Rich’s assertion that the room for error should not be there when it comes to automotive applications.

Look out again at the rock solid open source applications driving industry today, including the operating system kernels, embedded systems, security and web services and even end user applications. You’ll find your assurances there.


I don’t think the author understands what open source vs closed source development model is!

Apple is successful because it has pretty good quality control, regardless of its closedness (secretly they run atop a LOT of open source code, developed largely by 3rd parties).

Google promotes open source development initiatives, and their quality control is good too, for Android, for example. Truth be told, Google does not handle Android like a usual open source project. They work on it behind closed doors and once they deem it ready they open it up.

Open source development is about sharing and contributing ideas and together improve the code/hardware. This has been traditionally how hobbyist handle their projects. There is no concept of ‘patent’ here, just that of sharing information. Companies prefer the closed source model because they want to squeeze every penny out of their work via patents and copyrights and prevent competitors from ‘stealing their ideas’.

Open source initiatives may not be as productive and may have issues at times because they lack manpower and resources. If they had the financial might of GM behind them, I think things would move along much better. Many companies are embracing and succeeding with open source development (e.g. Red Hat), but the movement remains widely unknown because the big name companies want to keep the status quo… it the end it all boils down to morals, which are lost in corporations, where profit (for the shareholder) is king.

Ed Holcroft

Oh my goodness. And this author is a technology writer?


This article is very misleading. The truth is the most insecure & bug ridden software available to the general public is closed source. Instead of making it were everyone can see it and if there is a noted problem report it so it can be fix let’ take another approach. Let’s lock the code where no one can see it. So programers don’t have to be accountable and can do ‘sweep the dirt under the rug’ type programing. Just because it is open source does not mean it does not have a company or or payed employees behind the project. It just means it’s all out in the open, instead of hidden.


Open source does not mean beta quality software. It simply means that people can see the software source and are free to improve on it. Open source is about giving many people the ability to analyze the code, discover flaws and report them. This increases software quality, and cannot decrease it.

This seems to be confused with the idea of hobbyists installing their own software onto their machinese. People installing third party software, open source or not, onto their cars do so at their own risk and cannot hold the manufacturer liable.

EV News

Open source IS already happening, how do you think Tesla developed a DSP based digital motor controller based on the old Analogue AC Propulsion controller and got it up and running within a month? DSP chip vendors give out various examples of open source code to suit their chips and seeing as many vendors make DSPs specifically for the motor controller market, plenty of fully operational open source sample code is freely available.

EV hobbiest have about as much chance of making a commercial powertrain from scratch as they do of making and marketing a DIY GSM mobile phone hardware themselves, so that part of the argument is WAY off track!


“There’s little room for beta software mistakes in the automotive transportation world.”

Actually there’s *no* room for beta software mistakes in the automotive transportation world. The first car that crashed into another car and killed three people because of glitchy software would be the end of that nonsense.

Joshua "Youlysses" S. Grant

I hate this qoute, because for one it’s obvious. Two it’s implying Free as in Freedom releases are “beta software”. This leads me to believe the author has a slim idea how Faif Software works, and shouldn’t be writing an article to try to discredit it …


The Apple model:
– is more complicated than you make it out; it’s stacked on top of Darwin, which is open source
– doesn’t always just work. iCal hasn’t been able to sync all-day events in New Zealand for years

Thomas Smith

I have to disagree with Katie. Open source certainly leads to larger numbers of issues, but that is usually a function of larger use. The success of a product has everything to do with its maturity and support model and next to nothing to do with it being either open or closed source…


You’re mistaking strategy and execution. Apple is not successful because they are “closed source”. They are successful because they successfully implemented a strategy that uses closed source. There are certainly a myriad of examples of closed source software that doesn’t “just work”; indeed, Apple has displaced a number of such vendors.

Similarly, while Android certainly has some complexities, it is, nevertheless, remarkably more usable than most of its closed source competition / predecessors.

While I agree that cars should “just work”, this isn’t a result of open source versus closed source. Apple’s products work they way they do because they are built by Apple, not because of the underlying licensing mechanisms.

Steve K

Yes, and to be successful, an electric car needs to successfully utilize a closed system model. You can’t just slap together a bunch of commodity parts and have a successful automobile. The best cars are those which spring from a single vision. Committee cars tend to be bland and don’t do well in the market. In any even, there is an intense amount of integration in developing and manufacturing an automobile. The more tightly managed this integration the better the chances for success. This is one thing that Apple also understands that is lost on many electronic gadget companies that fall into the commodity trap and can’t sustain themselves.

Lucian Armasu

Like any type of new product category or market, initially it has to be “closed” to succeed. As the market becomes more mature, and there’s a lot of know-how and customization, the market starts to “open”. Clayton Christensen calls this “integration” and “disintegration” in his Innovator’s Solution book.

And it happens in pretty much any market. The original cars were not “open” either, but later did become open, because the advantage of integration becomes too small in the end, and customization is preferred.


Local Motors’ Rally Fighter is a single purpose/vision that combines existing parts from other vendors. So far from reviews of the thing in action, they seem to have succeeded. The discussion of Apple’s markets vs auto markets is hard to compare, apples & oranges and all that. What you’re describing though sounds very much like the Apple vs IBM/PC market story which Apple nearly went belly up as a result.


And I’m pretty sure all Redhat does is slap a bunch of free software together and give it to their customers without any form of QA or integration testing. Their number of developers is essentially zero, and all their releases suck.


Exactly. Whether something works or not depends on the design and its execution, not just being open or closed. Historically, a lot of hardware vendors that go the closed source route put out a 1.0 and if you’re lucky a 1.01/1.02 software update before moving on and effectively abandoning your product. It’s even worse when the vendor goes out of business and there’s no hope for support or fixes of any kind. Open source software breathes life into hardware, keeps it running effectively, adding improvements and new features, while also keeping it from becoming additional obsoleted landfill.

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