Environmentality: Olli


Claire Barnett

Photo by Claire Barnett // Vanderbilt Hustler

Kailey Newcome

Imagine stepping into a driverless bus and being greeted by a male voice identifying himself as “Olli” as you’re whisked through traffic, all while Olli offers restaurant recommendations or alerts you to a change in weather. This may seem like a scene out of a science fiction movie, but it’s not. Meet Olli, the first self-driving, electric vehicle that can communicate with its users.

Olli is the brainchild of Local Motors, a Knoxville-based subsidiary of LM Industries. First introduced in a handful of cities in 2016, its goal is “to reinvent the future of urban mobility and sustainability.” It does this through its unique design, production and operation.

First, Olli’s design incorporates an IBM Watson artificial intelligence platform, which can assist riders just as “Alexa” or “Siri” might in other venues. Passengers no longer need to pull out their cell phones to check the time, the weather or the latest movie reviews. Olli’s self-driving capabilities are achieved through a multilayer sensor array that provides 360-degree vision around the bus, vehicle control software and a remote vehicle monitoring, management and alert system.

Another unique design element is that Local Motors utilizes “open innovation,” meaning it invites customers and external experts to work with its internal team to brainstorm, critique and co-create products in real-time, which speeds technology and product development and makes customization more financially viable. With lengthier and more traditional development cycles, customers’ needs may have changed by the time products are introduced. With Olli, the finished product is tailor-made in a timely manner to meet the needs of whatever market it serves, whether that’s a city, a hospital system or a university.

Production is another area in which Local Motors stands out. Olli’s frame and many of its components are 3D printed. Local Motors also utilizes Direct Digital Manufacturing (DDM), which allows it to produce parts directly from a CAD file. Its use of 3D printing and DDM enables Local Motors to eliminate costly tooling, shorten the time between product conception and manufacture, and modify designs without the usual setbacks to timeline and budget. It’s a game changer for them.

Finally, Olli’s operation is much more environmentally friendly than alternative forms of transportation. One of the most important sustainable features of Olli is its rechargeable electric battery. Most automobiles depend on fossil fuels, and these fuels emit toxic pollutants into the air. In fact, transportation accounts for over a fourth of all greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. By switching the energy source from fossil fuels to electric batteries, the greenhouse gas emissions generated by all automobiles has the potential to be halved. Olli’s are taking a step in the right direction by incorporating this into their system.

Another great sustainable feature of the Olli is its rider capacity. Since the bus is self-driving, its internal space is entirely dedicated to passengers. With a seating capacity of eight, it’s can help reduce the number of vehicles on the road in a more significant way than carpooling can. Transport Canada estimates that, if just two people were to carpool to and from work for a year, they would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 2 tons. Just think of the positive environmental impact a fleet of electric, self-driving Ollis could have!

While the Olli has opened the door to many possibilities in the automotive industry, it’s important to note that the venture is not without challenges. There are still kinks that need to be worked out in self-driving vehicles. Tesla, another pioneer in self-driving cars, made headlines this spring with at least two crashes of its vehicles when in autopilot mode, and one of those crashes was fatal. Also, history shows that technology pioneers are often superseded by others who build upon their ideas and find ways to mass-produce them more cost effectively. Even so, through its innovative design, production and operation, Olli is definitely pushing the boundaries of how we address urban mobility while striving for a more sustainable environment.