When I was a kid, there always seemed to be someone in the neighborhood building some wonderfully absurd kit car on an old VW chassis. That basic VW platform was the basis for so many DIY car projects. Sadly, there’s nothing like that now. But maybe a new open-souce car called the Tabby will change that.
I really love the idea of a viable open-source car platform: something that’s cheap, relatively easy to build in a normal backyard or garage, and actually usable when completed. The old Beetle chassis/drivetrain combo is a pretty hard standard to beat, and it’s still my benchmark for future DIY car platforms. You could find them anywhere, it contained pretty much everything you needed (suspension, transmission, electricals, seat mounting, body hard points, etc), it was cheap, and the end result of your home-built project, whether it looked like a vintage MG or a really tiny big rig, was something you could register and drive on the road.
With unibody cars all but universal now, there really isn’t a good replacement for the old VW pans (until I can convince Tesla to sell their chassis alone — more on that soon), so I’m really happy to see projects like OSVehicle. The fundamental goal of the OSVehicle project seems to be to make the vehicular equivalent of an Arduino, the small, single-board computer that has been the key component in so many interesting DIY robotics, computing, art, and other projects for the past few years.
The OSVehicle is, basically, a basic flat-pack very small car/quadracycle chassis, along with all the freely available plans and 3D models associated with it. Here’s what they say themselves:
OSV is born – Open Source Vehicle, the concept of industralizable open source hardware designed for the automotive industry. From now on, anyone, with OSV, will be able to create his or her own personalized vehicle: manufacturers, automotive companies, but also designers, makers, and enthusiasts.
OSV is based on a universal platform that anyone can modify or improve at will, to build the vehicle that best satisfies his needs. Tabby – this is what the first universal chassis is called – is the heart and basis of OSV. 100% versatile and flexible, it allows the assembly of any type of vehicle, with 2 or 3 wheels, city cars, golf carts, street food vehicles, off-road.
One of the main features of Tabby is that it can be assembled in less than one hour. It comes flat packed in easily transportable crates and doesn’t need special tools for assembly. Designed with versatility as key element, Tabby can be made longer and shorter to create vehicles with 2 or 4 seats or increase its cargo capacity.
That “assembly in an hour” part is very interesting, and happily they include a time-lapse to prove it, albeit in a nice, clean, orderly shop:
The Tabby seems like a pretty well-designed platform, and actually manages to stick close to the layout of that old VW Type I standard: flat platform chassis with a rear-mounted engine. The biggest issue with the Tabby as it is right now is one of scale: it’s really more of a quadracycle than a full car. Those are legal for non-licesnsed and young drivers in places like France and other parts of the EU, but in the US these things would not likely be street legal.
This makes sense, from a regulatory standpoint. By not making them “real” cars, they can avoid the more difficult crash-testing, airbag, and other regulations that would make building something like this in a backyard prohibitive. So, while it’s disappointing, I get why they went that route.
The Tabby has a choice of three engine types: all electric, electric/gas hybrid, where the gas engine seems to act primarily as a range extender, and an all ICE setup. None of the engines are all that powerful — they top out at about 33 HP — but for the application they’re more than adequate. The ICE engines range from 50cc to 250cc and look to be single-cylinder units. The electric motor drivetrain seems to be the only one available at the moment, with the hybrid and ICE coming soon.
A road-legal (well, based on those EU quadracycle versions of road legal) version of the platform has been developed, called Urban Tabby. Essentially, it takes the basic 2-seater Tabby platform and adds a body, lights, and other requirements for road legality, which don’t seem to include a windshield. The result looks a bit like some of the Smart concept cars we’ve seen in basic shape, which, given the similarity of the drivetrain layout, isn’t shocking.
You can currently order 2 or 4 seat chassis, wheels, seats, the electric motor and associated battery pack and wiring harness, etc. It looks like the total package for a functioning, drivable electric chassis would cost somewhere around $4500. It’s a very interesting package, but at that price and without the ability to get it street legal in the US and with the limited utility/speed, I think most DIY car folks would likely try and find a used something to hack up into a project car.
I think the fundamental idea is very sound, and I’d really love to see this concept developed further. We’re getting to a point where the idea of a modular, DIY car isn’t such an absurd proposition, but to make it work in the US there’d need to be some regulatory slack cut. Ideally, there’d be a provision for homebuilt/experimental cars, much like how the FAA has an ‘experimental’ classification for aircraft.
If there was such an ‘experimental automotive’ classification, with full acknowledgement of safety risks and special insurance or whatever, that allowed people to actually register and drive their home-built cars, that would really go a long way. While it’s tempting to use the Arduino as an example, the differences in a tool that can let you tweet instructions to your personal massager and something that can possibly kill you on the highway at 70 MPH are pretty big.
Still, even with the significant increase in risk, cost, and resources to make a vehicle as opposed to electronic devices, I can still see a future renaissance in home-built creative vehicles and the associated industries to support them happening. With any luck, it’ll feel like 1979 all over again, with neighborhood crackpots putting giant fiberglass whale bodies or tiny, immaculate RVs or replicas of long-forgotten cars on underpowered, rear-engine chassis.