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VOL. 9 | NO. 41 | Saturday, October 8, 2016

Meet Olli

Knoxville area playing big role in self-driving vehicle revolution

By Linda Bryant

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With deep and well-funded resources such as Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee, the Knoxville region is no stranger to innovation in science and technology.

But a new kid on the block, Local Motors, has the potential to spark a whole new era of manufacturing innovation and make Knoxville a hotbed for a technology sector widely considered to be truly revolutionary – self-driving cars.

Make no mistake, self-driving vehicles are poised to upend life as we know it, and it may be sooner than you think.

“I think we’ll see a lot of self-driving vehicles of different sizes and capacities come out in the next 15 years – from bicycle-sized to large buses,” says Matt Lesh, director of mobility systems at Local Motors.

Many manufacturers, including Ford, General Motors, Volkswagen, Toyota, Tesla and BMW, have announced plans to have self-driving vehicles on the road within the next four years.

The market for partially autonomous vehicles is expected to grow to $36 billion by 2025, according to Statista.com. The fully autonomous vehicle market is projected to hit $6 billion.

Olli, a driverless bus developed by Local Motors, could revolutionize the way we get around town.


Initially, Local Motors will be manufacturing two self-driving vehicles on demand at its new 40,000 square-foot micro-factory off Pellissippi Parkway. Besides being autonomous vehicles, the two Knoxville-produced cars have another unusual quality in common: they will be produced, in large part, using a large-scale 3D printer.

The two vehicles are Olli, an electric minibus that can carry up to 12 people, and Strati, a two seat “neighborhood” electric car that goes up to 40 miles per hour and is not meant for highway driving.

The Knoxville microfactory is one of three that Local Motors launched this year. The facility is designed to be the main location for developing and constructing the company’s 3-D printed vehicles.

Local Motors is positioned as a “disruptor” with a radical business model in an industry that’s considered cutting-edge to begin with. The designs of the company’s products, which range from cars to buses to pizza ovens, are “co-created” by a community of 50,000-plus designers, companies and professionals who interact via a shared digital platform.

Local Motors microfactory located just outside of Knoxville

(Adam Taylor Gash/The Ledger)

With the help of 3D printing technology, Local Motors manufactures car bodies without standard equipment such as stamping dies, press lines, jigs, fixtures, robots and welding equipment. The process is less expensive than traditional auto manufacturing.

“Olli is just the start of [our impact on the industry],” Lesh says.

“We are poised to present to the world a new vehicle design that can meet needs that aren’t currently being met through traditional vehicles.’’

Asked about the company’s reputation as a disruptor, Lesh laughs. “We’re so disruptive we disrupt ourselves.”

Local Motors runs competitions on the platform, inviting participants to submit their own designs. For example, the Rally Fighter, which is manufactured at the company’s Arizona plant, was designed by a community member in a 2009 contest. The car is now street-legal in all 50 states and for sale on the Local Motor’s website for $99,900.

The Olli minibus, which will be made its the Knoxville microfactory, was designed by Edgar Sarmiento as a part of its 2015 Urban Mobility Challenge. Sarmiento, who won $20,000, is an industrial designer who lives in Italy.

About Local Motors

Founded in 2007, Local Motors is a technology company that designs, builds and sells vehicles. It is a privately-held company headquartered in Chandler, Arizona, with more than 140 employees. 
The Knoxville microfactory employs 12.

Local Motors also has microfactories in Chandler, Arizona, Berlin, Germany, and National Harbor, Maryland. Many more are planned. 
Local Motors products are built in small batches in a growing network of microfactories. The idea behind this strategy is to reduce waste, lessen the environmental footprint and greatly decrease the capital necessary to bring vehicles to market.

Since its inception, Local Motors has created a wide variety of vehicles, including the Rally Fighter (a Baja-style off-road vehicle), the Racer (a high-tech motorcycle), the Cruiser (a motorized bicycle), the Verrado (an electronic drift trike) and the world’s first fleet of 3D-printed cars.
Local Motors debuted the world’s first 3D-printed car in 2014. It was built in 44 hours at the International Manufacturing and Technology Show in Chicago.

Local Motors co-founder and chief executive Jay Rogers, a veteran of the Iraq war who was stunned by the number of gas-guzzling vehicles he saw there.

Local Motors is involved in more than the self-draiving car industry. One example is the company’s partnership with GE. Together the partners created FirstBuild, a “co-creation” community that designs, tests and produces appliances in small batches.

One invention born out of the FirstBuild community is the Monogram Pizza Oven, which fits into the small space of a standard wall oven cavity, yet is spacious enough to fit a pizza peel and large pie.

Local Motors does not disclose production costs for Olli, but previously disclosed that each unit would likely sell in the $200,000 to $250,000 range. The company envisions end-users as public transit systems, universities, private communities, hotels or convention centers that would buy 10-15 units at a time.

Industry faces safety concerns

Meanwhile, the rush to innovate, establish the regulations and infrastructure needed to guide the self-driving car industry is happening at a rapid rate despite a few highly-publicized accidents involving self-driving cars.

In early 2016, a Lexus 450 hybrid SUV with Google’s self-driving technology had a fender bender with a bus in Mountain View, California. Google had previously reported 17 minor scrapes involving self-driving vehicles, but the Lexus incident was the first one in which driver error was suspected. That might sound like a lot of fender benders, but keep in mind Google has accumulated more than 1 million miles of autonomous driving.

In May 2016, a worse scenario unfolded: a man was killed when his Tesla, which was in autopilot mode at the time, collided with a tractor-trailer in Florida.

Although these accidents have shone the spotlight on safety issues concerning self-driving vehicles, they haven’t stopped the hoopla surrounding the industry. If anything, they’ve boosted it.

Eager to help the autonomous vehicle industry address safety concerns so that it can grow, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration introduced a 15-point plan for the industry in September. The guidelines are meant to allow government to regulate the self-driving car industry without stifling innovators moving the technology forward.

Overview of the factory floor shows the scale of the large 3D printers used to produce LM car frames

(Adam Taylor Gash/The Ledger)

“We envision in the future, you can take your hands off the wheel, and your commute becomes restful or productive instead of frustrating and exhausting,” said Jeffrey Zients, director of the National Economic Council.

Zients said that autonomous vehicles “will save time, money and lives.”

The 15-point safety assessment addresses a wide swath of safety issues and concerns, including how driverless cars should react if their technology fails, what measures to put in place to ensure occupant privacy and how passengers will be protected in crashes.

The points also address the digital security of driverless vehicles and how a car can communicate with humans.

A factory technician applies a carbon fiber overlay to strengthen a 3D printed part

(Adam Taylor Gash/The Ledger)

President Barack Obama is particularly supportive of the industry. In conjunction with the rollout of the guidelines, Obama wrote an op-ed, first published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

“Right now, too many people die on our roads – 35,200 last year alone – with 94 percent of those the result of human error or choice,” Obama wrote.

“Automated vehicles have the potential to save tens of thousands of lives each year. And right now, for too many senior citizens and Americans with disabilities, driving isn’t an option. Automated vehicles could change their lives.

“Safer, more accessible driving. Less congested, less polluted roads. That’s what harnessing technology for good can look like. But we have to get it right. Americans deserve to know they’ll be safe today even as we develop and deploy the technologies of tomorrow.”

Watson at work

Gregory Hayes, Local Motors’ general manager,  sits at a table printed at the Local Motors micro factory

(Adam Taylor Gash /he Ledger)

The two vehicles to be manufactured in Knoxville, Olli and Strati, are equipped with some of the world’s most advanced vehicle technology, including IBM Watson Internet of Things (IoT).

If you haven’t heard of IoT yet, chances are you will soon. It could be compared to an innovation such as cloud technology, which took a few years to become a mainstream concept.

Briefly defined, IoT is technology that goes beyond the connectivity of computers, tablets and smartphones. It refers to a world where just about anything can be connected and communicates in a technologically intelligent fashion. The physical world becomes one massive information system in which energy-powered physical objects and devices such as refrigerators, exercise equipment and cars receive and collect data and communicate that data to people or other physical objects.

This technology allows natural interactions with Olli and Strait that seem like scenes from a science fiction movie. The cars’ systems will analyze – and learn from – high volumes of transportation data, produced by more than 30 sensors embedded throughout the vehicle.

Jessie Smith, manager of industrial partnerships and economic development at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, is bullish on the Local Motors’ prospects of being a top company in the self-driving vehicle industry.


Passengers will be able to interact conversationally with Olli while traveling from point A to point B, discussing topics about how the vehicle works, where they are going, and why Olli is making specific driving decisions, Lesh says.

For example, the Watson technology empowers Olli to understand and respond to passengers’ questions as they enter the vehicle. Passengers can ask about destinations (“Olli, can you take me downtown?”), specific vehicle functions (“how does this feature work?”) or even “are we there yet?”

Passengers can also ask for recommendations on local destinations such as popular restaurants or historical sites based on analysis of personal preferences. If a user is disabled or has a special need, Olli will be able to help out with certain requests.

Olli is already in use on public roads in Washington, D.C. and pilot programs are planned for Miami-Dade County in Florida and Las Vegas, Nevada.

Sustainability and community

The LM3D is Local Motors’ first road-ready 3D printed car.

(Adam Taylor Gash/The Ledger)

Local Motors occupies a significant niche within the autonomous car revolution. Part of the company’s mission is to make self-driving vehicles that are – to a large extent – made from sustainable materials and manufactured with a large scale 3D printer.

Compared to a traditional car, manufacturing takes much less time. For example, the Strati self-driving car takes about 44 hours to print in one piece and as few as two additional days for manufacturing tasks on the front and back end of the process.

“We are very much on the edge on many of our strategies and operations,” Lesh says. “What’s really unique is the principle it’s founded on – sustainable manufacturing. We’re pushing the notion of traditional manufacturing with our microfactory model. We are rapidly able to take [a vehicle] from concept to production.”

Lesh says part of the company’s sustainability philosophy includes a desire to see less – not necessarily more – cars on the road. Thus, the invention of Olli, the multi passenger minibus.

“One important focus for us is to create a better ability to circulate people within their communities,” Lesh explains. “Whether it be at the bus stop or the shopping mall, we’d like greater mobility for people who can’t walk, don’t drive, don’t want to walk or don’t want to drive?”

Lesh says Local Motors picked Knoxville as one of the company’s prime locations because of the region’s ties to automobile manufacturing and its proximity and close ties with ORNL.

Another plus is being close to the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI) at the University of Tennessee.

The $250 million public-private partnership involves hundreds of companies, schools and industry experts such as Ford, Volkswagen, Dow Chemical, Honda and Boeing and an array of high-level research institutions and universities such as the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, Vanderbilt University and Purdue University.

Advanced composites, which are being used in the production of Local Motors’ products, are very strong, stiff, fibers (such as glass or polymer) that are bound together with weaker materials. They are extremely strong and lightweight compared to the current materials used to make cars.

There is a driving demand to bring advanced composites into mass manufacturing, particularly auto manufacturing.

Doug Lawyer, vice president of economic development of the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce, says landing Local Motors is a major achievement for the region.

“They are an exceptionally smart, highly-driven, diverse team, have been very supportive of economic development and want to see the region grow,” Lawyer says.

“Any community would be proud to have them as corporate citizens, and I’m really excited to see how they will impact the world from their Knoxville base.

“The automotive sector has long been a target recruitment sector for the Innovation Valley region, most recently we have been focusing on composites related industries,” Lawyer adds. “Local Motors fits both those categories well.”

Innovation Valley is an economic development partnership focused on East Tennessee and ORNL and managed by the Knoxville Chamber. Within the past year, Innovation Valley has announced over 4,000 new jobs and $1.5B in capital investment.

“We work with our local school systems, community colleges, and TCAT’s (Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology) to make sure we have a pipeline of talent that is relevant to high tech companies such as Local Motors,” Lawyer says.

Jessie Smith, manager of industrial partnerships and economic development at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, is bullish on the Local Motors’ prospects of being a top company in the self-driving vehicle industry.

“Local Motors is the most exciting economic development project I’ve ever landed,’’ Smith points out.

Smith made a connection with Local Motors at an industry event five years ago when he was the director of technology for Innovation Valley.

“I knew right away they were a company we wanted to have in Tennessee,” Smith adds. “I started reaching out and convinced Jay Rogers (CEO of Local Motors) to come visit. I showed him our (ORNL’s) large 3D printer. He loved it, but said they needed an even bigger one.

“We worked with them step by step and got a large-scale printer they could use.”

Local Motors placed its footprint in Knoxville long before it launched the microfactory. The company opened a showroom and retail store in downtown’s Market Square in 2014.

“We wanted to get the community familiar with Local Motors and educate people about what we do and why we do it,” says General Manager Gregory Haye.

“The store has definitely created a lot of awareness about, and now that the microfactory is up and running, people in the area even more excited.”

Retail stores are a key part of Local Motors’ marketing plan. That’s because the company sees its potential customers as local and regional as opposed to national. A retail store helps educate the public about the unusual process and gets the company’s name out with branded merchandise, Haye adds.

Eventually, Local Motors envisions dozens, perhaps hundreds, of microfactories across the United States. Each microfactory would produce a few thousand cars a year. The idea is to have customers come to the factory and pick out a body style, powertrain and other customized option. Ideally, the car would be printed overnight and delivered the next day.

On display at the Market Square store is a version of Strati, the world’s first 3D-printed car and an array of retail merchandise made from eco-friendly materials such as T-shirts, water bottles, baseball caps and thermal containers.

“A lot of people engage with us – from young kids still in elementary school, to college students to tourists and community members,” Haye says. “The curiosity is increasing. People are sincerely fascinated in the technology and the whole idea of self-driving vehicles.”

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