March 09, 2005

Open Source Precursor

Looking through my Dad's bookshelf, I started flipping through a book called Henry's Attic. It's a fun book describing stuff that's been donated to Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum, in Dearborn. The museum is a tremendous collection of the history and culture of technology. You should go there if you're anywhere near Detroit.

One of the entries caught my eye. It was for the 1957 Liberty Mutual Insurance Company's "Survival Car I":

Among the innovations that the project spawned were the concept of "packaging" passengers for safety, simulating accidents to analyze how injuries occurred, and using dummies in auto-crash testing.


The tanklike vehicle--basically a 1961 [sic] Chevrolet Bel Aire--incorporates some sixty-five safety features for preventing accidents or reducing injuries when accidents occur.

That's not surprising, but here's the kicker that relates this as a parallel to today's open source/closed source debates:

Although auto manufacturers thought the safety features on the survival cars would not sell, more than fifty of them are standard equipment on today's automobiles. Liberty Mutual [...] sought no patents on the research or designs developed for the survival cars. [emphasis mine--mk]

Further, the DOT's site has an interesting quote about these cars from one Ralph Nader:

"That an insurance company," Nader said, "had to produce the first prototype safety car itself constituted a stinging rebuke to the automobile makers." The auto industry was hostile to Survival Cars; Nader reported that the experimental Mustang (1963) included eight of the safety features, but all were dropped by the time the car went into production.

For me the primary lesson is that eventually investment in good user experiences pay off, and resisting things that make products easier, safer and with better functionality, then sharing the most valuable insights with everyone, will pay off for everyone. Liberty Mutual invested $250K, in 1960 dollars, into their program. I'm sure that their innovations have saved many times in excess of that for insurance industries (who don't have to pay out claims) and consumers. I bet even car companies made money off of making safer cars.

Another lesson is that it probably took car companies a couple of tries, an impetus from consumers and regulators, to figure out how to incorporate these features into their cars. So iterative development, patience and perseverance are also necessary to understand exactly how to incorporate these ideas. For example, I don't see many modern cars with six windshield wipers or accordion doors (some pictures of the thing).

Posted by mikek at March 9, 2005 05:37 PM | TrackBack
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