NATIONAL HARBOR (United States) • A new maker of self-driving vehicles burst onto the scene in partnership with IBM's supercomputer platform Watson, and it's ready to roll right now.
The vehicle - a 3D-printed minibus called "Olli" capable of carrying 12 people - was unveiled on Thursday by Arizona-based start-up Local Motors outside the US capital, Washington.
Olli was designed 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.
Olli will be demonstrated in National Harbor, Maryland, over the next few months with additional trials expected in Las Vegas and Miami. Local Motors is also in talks to test the vehicles in dozens of cities around the world, including Berlin, Copenhagen and Canberra.
Even though Google and several carmakers see several years of testing before deploying autonomous cars, Local Motors co-founder and chief executive John Rogers said this vehicle is ready to go into service as soon as regulations allow it.
"The technology has been ready - fielding it is what has been hard," he said in an interview with the media.
By "fielding," Mr Rogers said Local Motors can design and make the vehicles to specification and offer a service to local governments or other buyers. "Local Motors is about selling (the vehicles) into the markets that are ready now," he said.
He said the company has an advantage over other systems because it is building the vehicles from the ground up, and producing most components with 3D printers.
"We hope to be able to print this vehicle in about 10 hours and assemble it in another hour," he said.
He envisions hundreds of "micro-factories" producing the vehicles around the world.
The privately held company, with about 45 investors, can easily revamp its design based on what a customer wants, and avoids the large infrastructure costs of traditional carmakers, according to Mr Rogers.
The driving is controlled by a system developed by Local Motors with several software and tech partners. IBM is not doing the driving but is providing the user interface so passengers can have "conversations" with Olli.
"Watson is bringing an understanding to the vehicle," said IBM's Mr Bret Greenstein. "If you have some place you need to be you can say that in your own words."
It marks IBM's first venture in fully autonomous driving, although it has worked with other carmaker partners on technology solutions.
Mr Greenstein said IBM sees Olli as "the first complete solution" for autonomous driving, and makes use of Watson's cognitive computing power. The vehicle relies on more than 30 sensors and streams of data from IBM's cloud.
With Watson, passengers can ask about how the vehicle works, where they are going, and why Olli is making specific driving decisions. And it can answer the dreaded driver question "Are we there yet?"
It can also offer recommendations for popular restaurants or historical sites based on the preferences of the passenger.