Agile Innovation, or How to Design and Build a 100 MPG Road Car in 3 Months

SolutionsIQ recently had the great fortune of co-hosting a talk by Joe Justice. He mesmerized the crowd describing how he and his international, highly collaborative team built a 100 mpg gallon road car in 3 months.

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Here are some highlights of what Joe and the others from Wikispeed have accomplished:

  • Designed and manufactured a 4-passenger street-legal car that gets 100 mpg

Most of us would agree that is quite an achievement. There is more:

  • The car was constructed using off-the-shelf parts

This means, among others things, that the car is easily serviceable using existing maintenance infrastructure

  • The car is entirely modular in design

All sub-systems are essentially snap-out/snap-in, making replacement of engine, brakes, suspension, etc. a process that takes just a few minutes. BTW, this is not simply replacing like-for-like but also to switch to a new technology (e.g. change to a new engine).

  • They innovated a new process for carbon-fiber body construction that costs 1/360th the traditional process

With this process, they were able to switch to a new body type for less than $1000.

  • You can pre-order cars now for less than $29,000

This is not just a one-off prototype. Currently they are manufacturing one car per week (yes, that’s the low volume manufacturing retail price). They are targeting a future price of under $20,000.

Last but not least, all this has been accomplished:

  • With no capital investment

Although they do solicit donations through PayPal on their website.

  • No paid employees

Everything is done by volunteers.

Watch the video below to see Joe talk about their accomplishments:

So, how did they do all this?

What Joe told the crowd at SolutionsIQ: Wikispeed is succeeding by applying Agile and Lean methods, learned through use in the software industry, to car design and manufacturing.  With what Joe and his colleagues have accomplished, Agile methods have now come full circle.

What the software Industry got from the car industry is returned with interest

It is well known that Scrum and XP practices, the cornerstone of Agile and Lean software development, were inspired by lean manufacturing methods, most notably as applied by Toyota. Since their introduction approximately fifteen years ago (Kent Beck’s Extreme Programming 1999, Scrum 1995, Agile Manifesto 2001), Agile methods have resulted in dramatic productivity gains throughout the software industry.

And along the way something else happened. As Joe explains it, since the design and production cycle-times for software development are typically much shorter than they are for manufacturing, respective incremental process improvement has often progressed at a more rapid pace. Consequently, there are instances where Agile and Lean methods in the software industry have surpassed their counterparts in manufacturing, the industry from which the originated. In addition, just as the software industry gained insights that led to huge waste reduction and quality improvements by applying the manufacturing metaphor to software development, so now is Wikispeed achieving transformational results in the automobile industry, by applying leading edge software design and Agile methods to car design and manufacturing.

In short, the Lean methods that crossed over from automobile manufacturing and transformed software development are now (through Wikispeed’s efforts) crossing back over and transforming the car industry (again).

The rapid innovation displayed by Joe and Co is a great example of, as Stephen Johnson puts it, “Where good ideas come.” As we recently discussed, Stephen Johnson makes the case that through the ages, most important innovations were the product not of single-minded geniuses but the byproduct of human collaborations.

Agile values are founded on the notion that innovation happens through collaboration. Stephen Johnson states this idea succinctly: “Chance favors the connected mind.” Wikispeed demonstrates to a broader audience what we in the software industry how have known for some time: Agile methods accelerate innovation.

A couple of weeks ago, our American President said in the State of the Union address, “The first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation.”

To my mind at least, this sounds as true today as it must have sounded at the dawn of the country. After all, the United States itself was a profound innovation, inpsired by a grand  collaboration. Thanks, Joe, for reminding us what we can do, each and every one of us, when we work together.

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