Meet Olli: The First Autonomous Vehicle Featuring IBM Watson
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on June 16, 2016 |

Open-source auto company Local Motors is constantly redefining itself. The company began with the Rally Fighter, whose designs were crowdsourced from the Local Motors community. The firm then jumped into the 3D printing industry, first 3D printing the Strati concept vehicle and then embarking on a complete line of 3D-printed road-ready cars, set to hit highways in 2017.

At the grand opening of the company’s new facility in National Harbor, MD, Local Motors redefined itself once again by unveiling “Olli”, the first self-driving vehicle powered by IBM Watson. Watson will allow the auto to take advantage of a number of advanced cognitive computing capabilities, including the ability to answer questions from the vehicle’s passengers.

Oh—and if one of those questions is whether or not Olli was 3D-printed, the answer is “mostly.”

Olli is the first self-driving vehicle featuring the IBM Watson platform. (Image courtesy of Local Motors.)
Olli is the first self-driving vehicle featuring the IBM Watson platform. (Image courtesy of Local Motors.)

The Watson Platform

You may be familiar with Watson from its big 2011 win on Jeopardy! or its interactions with famous celebs like Bob Dylan in recent IBM commercials. The Watson platform has since been leveraged as the backbone of IBM’s Internet of Things (IoT) with which the computing giant is providing cloud-based cognitive computing solutions to various verticals, including the auto industry.

Thirty sensors are embedded throughout the Olli vehicle which, combined with the Watson platform, allow the auto to respond continuously to passenger needs while also identifying local preferences. Four Watson developer APIs are also integrated into Olli, according to Local Motors: “Speech to Text, Natural Language Classifier, Entity Extraction and Text to Speech.”

Much of Olli’s interior is 3D-printed. (Image courtesy of Local Motors.)
Much of Olli’s interior is 3D-printed. (Image courtesy of Local Motors.)

Altogether, this will allow passengers to ask questions of Olli while the vehicle follows its route. Local Motors suggests that topics can range from how Olli works, its driving decisions, where passengers are headed and more. Passengers can even receive personal recommendations about restaurants or local sites based on an analysis of their preferences.

In other words, Watson acts as the interface between the passengers and the vehicle, but does not play a major role in Olli’s mechanical functions.

Other Local Motors partners provided hardware that perform essential tasks like braking, steering, and its route management. Paravan, for instance, lent its driving system to perform operations like acceleration, deceleration, steering, and braking. Best Mile provided Olli’s route optimization platform. A solution from Icarus monitors the vehicle’s service and maintenance needs. Other partners like Roding, Meridian Autonomous Systems and GSP also contributed pieces to Olli’s autonomous system.

Local Motors CEO Jay Rogers said of his company’s latest invention, “Olli offers a smart, safe and sustainable transportation solution that is long overdue. Olli with Watson acts as our entry into the world of self-driving vehicles, something we’ve been quietly working on with our co-creative community for the past year. We are now ready to accelerate the adoption of this technology and apply it to nearly every vehicle in our current portfolio and those in the very near future. I’m thrilled to see what our open community will do with the latest in advanced vehicle technology.”

Local Motors CEO Jay Rogers. (Image courtesy of Volim Photo.)
Local Motors CEO Jay Rogers. (Image courtesy of Volim Photo.)

Harriet Green, general manager of the commerce and education division of IBM Watson Internet of Things, elaborated on the use of Watson by Local Motors.

"Cognitive computing provides incredible opportunities to create unparalleled, customized experiences for customers, taking advantage of the massive amounts of streaming data from all devices connected to the Internet of Things, including an automobile’s myriad sensors and systems,” Green said. “IBM is excited to work with Local Motors to infuse IBM Watson IoT cognitive computing capabilities into Olli, exploring the art of what's possible in a world of self-driving vehicles and providing a unique, personalized experience for every passenger while helping to revolutionize the future of transportation for years to come."

3D Printing with BAAM

As with Local Motors’ most recent cars, Olli was made primarily with 3D printing using the company’s direct digital manufacturing process. Pioneered with Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Cincinnati Inc., the Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAAM) system extrudes composite materials at a rate of 80 pounds per hour before a CNC mill shaves the printed layers to a more refined shape.

This allows for flexibility difficult to achieve with other methods of manufacturing. Not only does this give Local Motors the ability to go from design to production within a short period of time, but any design changes that are made later on can be more quickly implemented in subsequent models.

The massive BAAM machine from Cincinnati Inc. at the new National Harbor facility. (Image courtesy of Local Motors.)
The massive BAAM machine from Cincinnati Inc. at the new National Harbor facility. (Image courtesy of Local Motors.)

Most of Olli is actually glass and the chassis is made of aluminum and steel, but Adam Kress, director of public relations and content for Local Motors, explained that the fenders and much of the interior are 3D-printed. The company also 3D printed molds for many other elements within the vehicle.

Olli's Specs

Olli has a 12-passenger capacity with the activity within the cabin monitored by humans. The vehicle features an electric drivetrain, while LiDAR (two VLP16 devices from Velodyne and two Scala devices from IBEO), two ZED optical cameras and Ellipse N GPS provide Olli with 360 degrees of environmental awareness.

Olli has a 12-person capacity. (Image courtesy of Local Motors.)
Olli has a 12-person capacity. (Image courtesy of Local Motors.)

The self-driving car has a range of 32.4 mi (58 km), a top speed of 12 mph (20 km/h) and can recharge its battery in just 4.5 hours. Olli typically achieves energy economy of about 2.16mi/kWh (3.48km/kWh), with a recharge only requiring about $1.80 (€3.91) worth of electricity.

12 mph is not exactly high-speed transit and the interior more closely resembles that of a subway car. This suggests that Olli may be more of a public transportation vehicle than a personal automobile, perhaps as a lower-cost alternative to monorails. However, because Olli does not seem to have manual controls, it may not be able to operate on public roads until regulations change.

A 4.5-hour charge time implies that Olli would need to be charged overnight or have built-in battery swapping so that it can operate during peak hours. As with other autonomous electric urban vehicle concepts, Olli would likely be guided back to a charging station by GPS.

Olli in the City

Local Motors announced that its autonomous vehicle is now running in Washington D.C., but more Olli cars, produced at Local Motors headquarters in Phoenix, Arizona, will reach Miami-Dade County and Las Vegas in 2016. If cities eventually decide to take on an entire fleet of Olli vehicles, the cars will be able to work together as part of a network.

Olli is designed as an urban electric vehicle for smart, autonomous transport. (Image courtesy of Local Motors.)
Olli is designed as an urban electric vehicle for smart, autonomous transport. (Image courtesy of Local Motors.)

Miami-Dade, in particular, is considering the deployment of multiple self-driving autos to drive people throughout Miami. Miami-Dade County mayor Carlos Gimenez explained the desire for such a program for his municipality.

“Improving the sustainability of local transportation networks as part of a wider goal to create more vibrant, livable, sustainable cities within Miami-Dade County and improve the quality of life for residents is our top priority,” Gimenez explained. “We must do more to improve transit and mobility in our community and the deployment of autonomous vehicles is a big step in the right direction.”

The design for Olli was created as the result of a challenge hosted in Berlin in 2015, in which the Local Motors community was invited to submit concepts for smart cars for urban environments. The winner of the challenge was designer Edgar Sarmiento, who had the opportunity to actually be transported inside of his creation, along with the CEO of Local Motors, at the grand opening of the firm’s new National Harbor site.

The New Local Motors Facility

The National Harbor Sales and Experience Center will be unlike the company’s other microfactories, where Local Motors vehicles are manufactured. Rogers described the site as the combination of an R&D lab and learning facility, where visitors will have a chance to see engineers use the BAAM 3D printer to develop new vehicles. In addition to housing a BAAM machine and 3D-printed cars, the facility will also feature STEM education and an interactive experience that encourages visitors to co-create the D.C. area of tomorrow. 

The new Local Motors facility in National Harbor, Maryland. (Image courtesy of Local Motors.)
The new Local Motors facility in National Harbor, Maryland. (Image courtesy of Local Motors.)

The D.C. area was selected for Olli and the Local Motors site as a means of presenting the future of automotive technology to the country’s decision makers in Washington. In a letter accompanying the unveiling of Olli, Rogers wrote, “As a company intent on distributing micromanufacturing around the world, certain cities are crucial in shaping regulation and opinion. National capitals such as Washington D.C. and Berlin are just such locations…”

The Future of Intelligent, 3D-Printed Vehicles

In an interview with Rogers, the CEO explained that such cognitive computing is only one piece in the future of smart vehicles. By combining data acquired from sensors, Local Motors has the potential to improve future car designs. At some point, printed parts could be monitored for overtime for wear and other variables.

All of the data from every point in the vehicle could eventually inform changes in the shape, the material, the software, and hardware components. That way, when the next version of a car like Olli is manufactured, all of these changes could be made on the fly.

Olli at Local Motors headquarters in Phoenix, Arizona. (Image courtesy of Local Motors.)
Olli at Local Motors headquarters in Phoenix, Arizona. (Image courtesy of Local Motors.)

As part of a networked environment, smart vehicles might also gather information about the weather, local road conditions, traffic and more, ultimately streamlining transit throughout an urban environment. Due to increasing population and the devastating effects of climate change caused by fossil fuel production, more intelligent urban transportation may be essential for piloting congested cities while removing the need for more personal cars on the road.

Moving from personal cars to include a public transportation concept, therefore, signals Local Motors as more than just a company looking at new technological fads, but as a firm with a focus on the future of auto manufacturing and, possibly, manufacturing as a whole.

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