The Fuse

Cross Post: Autonomous, 3D Bus Gives Rides in Washington, DC

by The Fuse | June 20, 2016

This story was originally published last week on The Verge. The link can be found here.

Local Motors, the Arizona-based automaker that crowdsources vehicle design, has introduced a 3D-printed, autonomous, electric shuttle bus that is partially recyclable called Olli. Local Motors says that it’s the first vehicle to use IBM Watson’s car-focused cognitive learning platform, Watson Internet of Things (IoT) for Automotive.

It’s a boxy, far-out concept that may be the first of its kind, but that’s the point for a company that isn’t focused only on making vehicles — it’s about remaking the car manufacturing business. If all goes according to plan, Olli will be giving autonomous rides at the company’s introductory event on the new National Harbor campus today. The facility, located less than 10 miles from Washington, DC, is part 3D printing demo lab and part inventor playroom, including a new STEM program for kids that demonstrates recycling of printed cars. Local Motors also plans to open new facilities in Knoxville and Berlin this year.

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Yesterday, I visited the National Harbor facility, where final tweaks were being made on the 12-seat Olli for the unveiling. The place was bustling with workers who were wiring the minibus with sensors for self driving. Local Motors executives were getting ready for their most high-profile event to date perhaps since the Rally Fighter (which plays a part in next year’s Fast 8) was first shown in 2009. The Olli will be giving passengers demo rides here throughout the summer. In addition, visitors to the National Harbor will be able to view 3D-printing capabilities first used in the Strati in 2014 onsite, and experiment with 3D printing themselves.

“There is no more connected technology possible than a car, you just have to make it work.”

CEO and co-founder John B. Rogers, Jr. stopped by to chat with me for a moment. “There is no more connected technology possible than a car, you just have to make it work,” he says. “The Strati is the idea of what does a $5,000 car look like? And an Olli is, what does it mean to share [a car]? The future is full of both. In the future, it is shared transportation that is organizationally owned, there will be shared transportation that is privately owned, and then there will be transportation that is not shared that is privately owned. We’ll have all these.”

Local Motors will also extend its practice of using “microfactories” to build more than rendered designs. “We’ve just taken control of our first powertrain and our communities will open-source the powertrain,” Rogers says. “Once you control the powertrain, then we control the building of the vehicle. The motor and the sensors and electronics is something we can partner very well with other people. And we can buy the battery from a lot of people, whether it’s Tesla Energy or Samsung SDI.”

But crowdsourcing is a key concept of Local Motors’ approach. (“It’s why we’re here, says one Local Motors staffer.) The designer of the Olli, Edgar Sarmiento, a Colombian-born Italian car design student, had just arrived and seen the results of the first printing of his work, and had a somewhat stunned smile. He will earn royalties from his winning submission. “I tried to make this vehicle flexible to a lot of things,” he told me. “This one is a public solution for cities. It’s simple, minimalistic, to make a shape like a box, and all of this related to the use of the product. I was born in Bogotá, a big city that is going to reach 10 million people. It’s a context to start to think of problems in the city as far as transportation and to think of solutions.”

Also on site was Bret Greenstein, vice president of IBM IoT, who explained how Olli would use sensors and speech-to-text to learn about its passengers. “We do everything through voice and we translate language and combine it with other data,” he says. “We’ll try to build as much of the experience and let the vehicle know about you so it can build your experience — favorite restaurant, what dry cleaner you use. There’s things you can define in a profile, or things you can learn as you go.”

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The speed at which Local Motors works helps the company to appeal to fast-moving tech partners. “Technology providers see us as a way to get their products to market,” Justin Fishkin, Local Motors’ Chief Strategic Officer, told me. “Two weeks ago we started building this vehicle. This is the world’s first autonomous on-demand shuttle. So basically you call it on an app and it picks you up just like Uber and it will talk to you.”

Fishkin told me the company has built the first two Olli units. Local Motors is working with municipalities including Miami-Dade and Las Vegas, who will develop programs around the bus. “Our business model is that we sell before we make, so we don’t have the inventory.” And the company has already taken its manufacturing concept beyond road vehicles: it’s currently in the judging process of a drone design competition in partnership with Airbus, and has ventured into the appliance space through its FirstBuild program with General Electric, which has invested in Local Motors.

This is the world’s first autonomous on-demand shuttle.

Despite (or maybe thanks to) its expansive network of crowdsourced contributors, Local Motors only employees 130 workers. “This vehicle is the culmination,” Fishkin says. “First we proved that you could put a car on the road by committee, which nobody said was possible. Then we showed that you could crowdsource a military vehicle in two months and people thought we were a military vehicle company. We proved that digital manufacturing could be even faster. As Silicon Valley and Detroit converge, we sit nicely in the middle. It just so happens that this is as relevant to the current demand on the market as it could be.”

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