Ever since the open source software movement started in 1998, businesses across all industries have learned the benefits of cooperative activity and collaboration. And with the recent growth of Web 2.0 technologies, cheaper creative tools and a cost-saving mentality forced by the recession, it is no surprise that there has also been a trend of leveraging the mass community -– crowdsourcing, as some call it -– to achieve business goals in innovative ways.
Fiat Brazil is now bringing the same principles to the automotive industry and is designing a concept car using crowdsourced ideas collected through a dedicated project website as well as via social-networking sites, including Facebook, Twitter and Orkut. This initiative is dubbed the “Mio” project and the Fiat Concept Car III will be presented at the 2010 International São Paulo Auto Show in Brazil, though it is still to be determined if it will be commercially launched. (The predecessor to the Fiat Concept Car III, the Concept Car II, at right, was shown at the International São Paulo Auto Show in 2008.)
Fiat has chosen Brazil because it is a digitally sophisticated market and, according to Advertising Age, Fiat is Brazil’s No. 1 carmaker, with a 24.8 percent market share, and the country’s fifth-largest advertiser, spending about $80 million a year.
At the time of this writing, the Mio project site has more than 6,800 ideas and 9,600 participants, in addition to its 1,100-plus Twitter followers. Ideas generated through this project will be protected by a Creative Commons license and have ranged from the simple –- distribute owner manuals in a flash drive –- to the somewhat ridiculous –- using garbage as fuel for propulsion and releasing oxygen as exhaust gases. Unsurprisingly, the project site states that ”ideas from users combined will be tested and made viable with the proposals of our engineers.”
The site’s current focus is on questions regarding ergonomics, safety, materials, design, infotainment and propulsion. In March 2010 topics will be shifted, in preparation for the São Paulo Auto Show, to branding and marketing ideas.
So, is this new Fiat initiative an innovative marketing and social experiment? Sure. Could it potentially lead to a blockbuster car that is well-received by its target market? Possibly. But will it change how the whole industry approaches car design? Highly unlikely.
First, let’s define exactly what Fiat is doing here. The automaker is outsourcing the initial brainstorming of individual ideas to a community of consumers. As a result, ideas can be explored quickly and at comparatively little cost versus hiring a team of outsourced designers and engineers. Moreover, Fiat is able to tap a wider audience and gain first-hand insight on its customers’ desires.
Of course, crowdsourcing is highly controversial and has its downsides. Unlike a “design contest” model, such as what Local Motors follows, Fiat has not mentioned any process of compensation, even for ideas that make it into the final concept. Furthermore, it can be argued that it doesn’t make sense to ask ideas from people who don’t necessarily possess the expertise of designing a car. (Something that reminds me of the “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” episode of The Simpsons, which also references the failure of the Ford Edsel). As a result, there is a high probability that the combined user contributions may be underwhelming due to a lack of monetary motivation, a biased group of participants, lower quality of work, lack of personal interest in the project as a whole, and possibly even language barriers as submissions have been submitted from around the globe.
At the same time, however, is this initiative really harmful? It doesn’t have to be, so long as Fiat recognizes the pitfalls and has the resources necessary to manage a crowdsourced project, which could actually end up costing more than a traditional one.
All in all, I see this as a large brainstorming session where ideas, both good and bad, are accepted and the best ones are chosen by those with the expertise required to carry them out –- Fiat’s own design and engineering team. Either way, I’m certainly excited to see how the project progresses and what the final outcome will be.
- Original call to the community to start using the term “open source,” issued by Eric S. Raymond, 02.08.98
- Fiat Mio project site
- Official site for the 2010 International São Paulo Auto Show
- At Fiat in Brazil, Vehicle Design Is No Longer By Fiat [subscription required], Advertising Age, 08.21.09
- Fiat Mio profile, @fiatmio, Twitter
- Local Motors site
- Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? episode of The Simpsons entry on Wikipedia
- Ford Edsel entry on Wikipedia
Concept Car II photo appears courtesy of Fiat