The Tennessee plant will begin turning out small batches of cars in the first quarter of 2016 -- not golf carts, not speed-restricted retirement-community cars, not do-it-yourself kit cars, but highway-legal automobiles, Rogers says. He expects to obtain federal crash-test certification by the end of 2016 and produce vehicles at the modest rate of 2,000 a year. That's less than one-thirtieth the production volume this year at Nissan's plant 170 miles away in Smyrna, Tenn.
Rogers plans to construct 100 such microfactories in cities across America and around the world -- Phoenix, Berlin, Washington. Each will be about the size of a modern grocery store, and each will cost a total of between $10 million and $20 million. For comparison, Mercedes-Benz is spending $1.3 billion to upgrade its Vance, Ala., assembly plant. Local Motors' projects its total global capital investment at around $1.5 billion over the next 10 years.
Rogers does not blink at the thought of raising $1.5 billion in investor capital for an unproven, barely known auto company. That might be due partly to his family background of wealthy industrialists and Houston-area mega-real-estate interests -- but, he quips, "there's never enough family money to do the auto industry."
Or it might be due to Rogers' radical approach to product creation. Local Motors' plan is to crowdsource vehicles -- they will be designed and equipped through community confabs among thousands of car enthusiasts, gung-ho engineers, component suppliers and automaker project managers. The first crowdsourced product arrived in 2007 as the Rally Fighter, a fierce Road Warrior-looking coupe "desert racer," assembled in Arizona with a Corvette 6.2-liter V-8, Honda Civic headlights and a somewhat slap-dash interior. It retails for $99,900 and is highway-legal.
It's just a start, Rogers explains, hand-assembled for a few hearty aficionados but mainly a venture to prove that crowdsourcing works for cars just as it works for computer software.
What comes next is even more ambitious: Local Motors' manufacturing plan is to construct its next cars through 3-D printing. Advanced robotic 3-D printing systems will form car bodies, panels and frames out of thermoplastic and carbon fiber, allowing the company to cycle through myriad iterations without the cost of hard tooling redesign.
There will be no aluminum or steel stamping and no body painting, meaning the microfactories will have a more benign environmental footprint and could be constructed in an urban setting. The natural color of 3-D-printed cars is black, so Rogers is reliving Henry Ford's wry pronouncement of mass-production economics to his customers: You can have any color you like -- as long as it's black.
The company will offer a vinyl shrink-wrap option to buyers who want a color choice.
On top of that, Local Motors wants to break an even bigger industry rule by selling its cars factory-direct on the Internet, with no franchised dealers. Local Motors would handle its own vehicle distribution and maintenance work, although it hasn't made clear how it will deliver vehicles to buyers.