What if the public designed a car ...?

Like it or not, consumer-generated design has reached the automotive industry.

The web has taken the producer out of filmmaking with YouTube, it has taken the sales rep out of retail with online shopping, but taking the engineer out of the automobile may be a people’s project too far.

It’s no secret that oversupply of automobiles has created fierce competition for market share, and car companies are bending over backward to be more in sync with their customers. Before the digital age, that meant doing surveys and holding focus groups to gauge customer opinion. More recently, online forums have allowed carmakers to communicate directly with consumers. However, no company has gone as far as Fiat Brazil — which last month kicked off a program asking customers to submit ideas on a blog or via Twitter, that it says will be used to design a concept car, the Fiat Mio, in 2010. “We put in check the established business model,” says Fiat’s marketing director in Brazil, João Batista Ciaco. “It’s a different way of approach — a way to understand the relationship between the consumer and the product.”

Different, indeed — although the thought of allowing customers to design their product sounds a bit like letting passengers fly the plane. Case in point: the Homer Car.

In a 1991 episode of The Simpsons, Herb Powell, the head of Powell Motors, asks his half-brother, Homer — the quintessential “average man” — to design a car. Homer creates a monstrosity equipped with tail fins and a horn that plays “La Cucaracha.” The poorly designed and overpriced vehicle causes Powell to declare bankruptcy, and Homer to be estranged from his brother.

Just as Powell wanted to tap in to the psyche of the average man, Fiat says it wants to tap into its customer base (which now includes potential Chrysler customers in North America) to stay on top of changing desires in order to prevent missteps. “I like to think about this project as a laboratory,” says Abel Reis, president and chief operating officer of Fiat’s digital agency, AgenciaClick. “We have to test initiatives, concepts in a lab before the next step of innovation in the product.”

Fewer factory closures to date in Europe — Fiat’s home turf — mean the market there is even more saturated than in North America. In Brazil, however, the auto industry has rebounded due to tax breaks, low interest rates and easier loan terms. As Brazil’s largest carmaker — with 24.8% market share — Fiat is well positioned to take advantage of the sector’s growth.

Consumer-driven concept cars aren’t brand new to Fiat. It introduced its first one in 2006 to celebrate the company’s 30th anniversary in Brazil. In that case, it launched an interactivewebsite where thousands of people posted their expectations for the future using video, audio or text. The project culminated in an adventure coupe — Fiat’s first car to be entirely created in Brazil. The company continued the project two years later using inspiration from Brazilians’ vision of the future to design Concept Car II — an ecologically friendly car that was fun to drive and, incidentally, bore a marked resemblance to the Homer Car.

For the 2010 version, visitors to can post a response to the question: “In the future we’re building, what should a car have that makes it mine, while still working for others?” The engineers will incorporate the answers into a technical design that will be published early next year. In March 2010, visitors to the site will be invited to post ideas about the branding and marketing of the vehicle. The Mio will be unveiled at the Brazilian car show seven months later.

Although Ciaco says it’s important to note that the Mio is not a marketing campaign — the project was born in the Fiat style centre — the publicity that has resulted from the website must also be welcome. The site has already received almost 300,000 unique visitors from 133 countries, and 3,959 suggestions.

Ideas have included features such as an outlet for laptops, infrared lasers to map the surface of the road ahead, and electronic memory to store the settings for seats, mirrors, and the steering wheel. Visitors have also proposed that the car be solar-powered, or propelled using electricity, and that the body be made entirely of recycled materials.

At this point, another Homer Car debacle is unlikely. Although Fiat may be handing over the design to the public, it isn’t staking much on the results. The Fiat Mio will not go into commercial production but, rather, will inspire future designs. “It’s where we experiment with all these possibilities,” said Ciaco. “If they are good solutions, good propositions, possibly they are going to be used in other models.”