Driverless bus harnesses IBM's Watson to shoot the breeze with passengers

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Local Motors demonstrated Olli the autonomous bus for the first time at the opening of its new facility just outside the nation's capital

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From China to Gothenburg, electric buses are shaping as a pretty big part of mass transit moving forward. But an electric powertrain isn't the only innovative technology on the Olli autonomous bus unveiled today just outside Washington DC. The on-demand bus, most of which is 3D-printed, will leverage the power of IBM's Watson supercomputer to talk to passengers en route.

Olli is a 12-passenger electric bus developed by Local Motors, the Arizona-based company that created the world's first 3D printed car in 2014 (it also makes electric drift trikes in its spare time). Olli looks pretty similar to the EZ10 driverless bus that underwent testing in California last year, with a boxy exterior and an interior that looks more like a ski gondola than a traditional public bus cabin.

The vehicle uses 30 sensors, including radar, LIDAR and cameras, and combines these with transport data gathered by Watson to navigate city streets. Local Motors imagines a number of uses for Olli, including moving workers across corporate grounds, transporting students around campus and playing a part in city transit systems. Users will be able to hail Olli at designated pickup spots or summon it using a smartphone app, through which they can pay for their ride as well.

For those familiar with Watson's previous antics, which include winning Jeopardy, going to university, becoming adept in the art of debate and offering customer service, its integration with Olli mightn't come as a huge surprise. Local Motors and the IBM Watson IoT's AutoLAB have trained the supercomputer to participate in the passenger experience by tapping into four of its developer APIs: Speech to Text, Natural Language Classifier, Entity Extraction and Text to Speech.

The company says that this means passengers can converse with Olli in a relatively normal way. So while traveling to their destination, they might question Olli on why it is making certain driving decisions, how the vehicle works or how far they are from their destination. Watson gives Olli the ability to respond to these questions and also complete requests, such as "Olli, can you take me downtown?" and "can you recommend a good restaurant?"

In an interview with Agence France-Presse, Local Motors CEO John Rogers says that the technology is ready and Olli is capable of entering service as soon as lawmakers allow it. He says that most of the vehicle's components are produced through 3D printing, and that the company envisages hundreds of micro-factories where Ollis tailored to specific needs can be produced around the world.

"We hope to be able to print this vehicle in about 10 hours and assemble it in another hour," he said.

Local Motors demonstrated the autonomous bus for the first time at the opening of its new facility at National Harbor, Maryland, just outside the US capital. The vehicle will remain there for the summer months with the public able to check it out at select times. Later in the year, Olli will travel to Miami-Dade County, Florida, and Las Vegas, Nevada.

You can check out Local Motors' short Olli promo video below.

Source: Local Motors

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