This glass and plastic box on wheels is Olli, a self-driving combination taxi and tour guide that even understands stupid questions like “Are we there yet?” and gives sensible anwers.
It’s a battery-powered minibus capable of carrying 12 people, designed by a new Phoenix, Arizona-based company called Local Motors in partnership with IBM’s supercomputer platform Watson as an on-demand transportation solution that passengers can summon with a mobile app, like Uber rides.
And it can be “printed” to specification in “micro factories” in a matter of hours. Even though Google and several automakers see several years of testing before deploying autonomous cars, Local Motors co-founder and chief executive John Rogers said Olli was ready to go into service as soon as regulations allow it.
“The technology is ready – getting it accepted is what has been hard,” he said. “Local Motors is about selling Olli into markets that are ready now.”
Rogers said the company had an advantage over other systems because it was building the vehicles from the ground up, and producing most components with 3D printers, so it could design and make them to specification for local governments or other buyers, based on what the customer wanted, without the huge infrastructure costs of traditional car companies..
“We hope to be able to print this vehicle in about 10 hours and assemble it in another hour,” he said, envisioning hundreds of “micro-factories” producing the vehicles around the world.
Olli weighs about 1500kg and has an electric motor delivering 30kW and 125Nm, giving it a top speed of about 20km/h, while its onboard batteries give it a range of about 50km/h between pit-stops. Inter-city transport it’s not, but it’s OK around town.
We’re using the present tense because this is not a projection – there is already a protoype Olli in service in National Harbor, Maryland, albeit with a human ‘supervisor’ on board just in case, and by the end of 2016 there will be two running commercially in Las Vegas, a number around Miami and four in Copenhagen.
How does it do that?
Olli drives itself using a system developed by Local Motors with a number of software and tech partners, with data provided by more than 30 cameras and Light Detection and Ranging sensors scan ning the road.
IBM’s Watson cloud platform isn’t involved in driving; it provides a user interface so passengers can have “conversations” with Olli.
“Watson is bringing an understanding to the vehicle,” said IBM’s Bret Greenstein. “If you have someplace you need to be you can say that in your own words.”
Greenstein said IBM sees Olli as “the first complete solution” for autonomous driving, and makes use of Watson’s cognitive computing power.
Using “natural language” recognition can help create “a relationship between the passenger” and the vehicles, Greenstein said.
“A vehicle that understands human language, where you can walk in and say, ‘I’d like to get to work,’ that lets you as a passenger relax and enjoy your journey,” he explained.
Passengers can ask about how the vehicle works, where they are going, and why Olli is making specific driving decisions. It also can offer recommendations for popular restaurants or historical sites based on the personal preferences of the passenger.