Meet Olli the self driving bus, perfectly disruptive, perfectly purposeful

Local Motors represents a new breed of company, one that competitors would be wise to watch out for

Local Motors, an Arizona based automaker that crowd sources vehicle design, has introduced a 3D printed, autonomous, partly recyclable, electric shuttle bus 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.

While many people haven’t heard of Local Motors they’re interesting because they show what can be done using modern technologies and modern business models. Their designs are crowdsourced, their electric vehicles are 3D printed in micro factories and infused with AI and then finally they play directly into the hot on demand market. Consequently they represent a new breed of entrepreneur that older, legacy organisations should be wary of.

Olli is a a boxy, far out first of a kind concept and while it might look fun the company behind it is serious about remaking the car manufacturing business. And, if all goes according to plan, Olli will be giving autonomous rides at the company’s introductory event on the new National Harbor campus later this week.

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.

When we 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. The Olli will be giving passengers demo rides throughout the summer and, as if that wasn’t enough excitement tourists will be able to view the company’s 3D printing capabilities first hand and experiment with 3D printing themselves.

 

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“There is no more connected technology possible than a car, you just have to make it work,” said co-founder John B. Rogers.

“The Strati, a prototype car we 3D printed in 2014 goes someway to answering the question of what does a $5,000 car look like? And Olli is a natural progression – what does it mean to share (a car)? The future is going to be full of both. In the future there will be shared transportation that is owned by organisations and shared transportation that is privately owned, then we will have transportation that is not shared that is privately owned. We’ll have all these models in play.”

Local Motors will also extend its practice of using what it terms “Micro Factories” 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.”

Crowdsourcing plays a critical role in the company’s 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 said.

“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.”

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,” said Justin Fishkin, Local Motors’ Chief Strategic Officer.

“Two weeks ago we started building this vehicle. This is the world’s first autonomous on-demand shuttle. You call it on an app and it picks you up just like an Uber, plus it’ll 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 GE, who have also invested in the company.

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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