There's a lot of discussion about how emerging new technologies like autonomous vehicles (AVs) are going to change our cities. Some believe that they could cause more congestion and more urban sprawl, yet they could also make our cities greener. It's too early to know which way things will go, but some also foresee that a large portion of AVs would also likely be shared.
Not only will these shared self-driving vehicles use artificial intelligence to maneuver and organize themselves efficiently on the roads, they can also talk to you and use data to personalize your trips. At least, that's what Arizona-based automobile tech company Local Motors is trying to do with their latest creation, Olli, a 3D printed, electrically powered minibus that can accommodate up to 12 passengers, and which also uses Watson, IBM's cloud-based AI technology to help riders plan routes, get their questions answered or recommend places to visit or dine.
The minibus operates as an on-demand service. Local Motors is currently testing out the vehicle and its capabilities during this summer in an area restricted around Washington DC's National Harbour, where it will drive around at very slow speeds to pick up visitors, who will hail Olli with a smartphone app. The self-driving shuttle is equipped with dozens of sensors that allow it to collect large amounts of data onboard and off, and uses cloud technology to analyze that data to quickly make decisions, though the vehicle will be remotely monitored by a human operator at all times.
The company's vision is that Olli can be used to supplement public transit, or as chartered multi-passenger taxis, or perhaps as a connected network of mobile pods.
Made with microfactories
But perhaps the most interesting aspect is how Local Motors is making these vehicles. They employ a "co-creative", crowdsourced model, where they offer royalties in exchange for selecting one winning design out of many submitted by a global community of contributors, and use a growing network of microfactories equipped with rapid prototyping technologies to source their parts.
Small-scale microfactories enable companies to create smaller production runs of a product, saving money, materials, space and time, and eliminating the need for stockpiling products. The company says that the microfactory model "allows for the creation and production of new vehicles based on local needs," and could very well herald how tomorrow's cars are going to be sustainably made.
Diverse transportation solutions
So while privately owned self-driving cars may potentially increase congestion in cities and their suburbs, the flip-side is that a network of shared, autonomous multi-passenger vehicles could very well offset that. Autonomous buses could supplement existing mass transit systems, providing a solution for the first/last mile problem. In any case, it seems that cities will most likely need a diversity of transportation solutions -- using both traditional and smart technologies -- to face future challenges. Places like Beverly Hills, the Netherlands and China are already exploring how self-driving buses would fit in on existing roads.
Of course, while smart transport technology like Olli is exciting to see, there's still plenty of other overarching issues to consider in the bigger picture: How is this going to affect jobs for bus drivers in the future? How would cities implement universal access to the system to those who cannot afford a smartphone? What about ensuring that these autonomous vehicles are secured against hacking threats? There's no doubt that urban transportation ecosystems are going to evolve, so there are many critical questions that citizens, cities and companies have to seriously consider in order to create smart, accessible and livable cities in the future. Nevertheless, it's encouraging to see some companies presenting a tactile example of what one piece of the puzzle might look like. More over at Local Motors and Olli.