IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Talking Self-Driving Shuttle Debuts in Maryland

The Olli is ready to roll, and it may be used in the U.S. Transportation Department’s Smart City Challenge.

A self-driving, fully electric, conversational shuttle is now crawling the streets of a Maryland town just outside the District of Columbia — and it might be used in the city that wins the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Smart City Challenge this year as well.

Local Motors, which has previously grabbed attention for 3-D printing a car, debuted a self-driving shuttle it calls Olli in National Harbor, Md., on June 16. There are other self-driving shuttles out there — including the widely tested EasyMile shuttle making its way to the San Francisco Bay Area — but Olli is a little different. That’s because Local Motors worked with IBM Watson to introduce the ability for passengers to talk to the shuttle and tell it where to go.

It’s actually a little more flexible than that. According to a blog post from Local Motors, passengers can ask Olli questions like “how close are we?” and the vehicle will answer.

Adam Kress, a spokesperson for the company, said Local Motors has been in talks with the participants in the Smart City Challenge. The company has offered its shuttles to the cities and four have expressed interest: Austin, Texas; Portland, Ore.; Columbus, Ohio; and San Francisco. But whether or not Olli becomes part of the high-profile competition will depend on a few things — not least of which is which city the DOT selects as the winner. The DOT is looking to name the winner before the end of the month.

Several of the seven finalists have proposed using self-driving shuttles to help connect residents to public transit or to ferry people around designated parts of town such as university campuses, airports or downtown corridors. The public transit angle is an approach to solving the “first and last mile” concept, which suggests that people might not take transit because of the distance they have to travel to and from that transit. Having self-driving shuttles around could, theoretically, make it easier for people to get to transit, which might in turn encourage more people to take public transportation as opposed to personal cars.

That might then help address congestion, pollution and traffic accidents on the roads.

For now, the company is starting out small. There's only one Olli roaming mostly private streets in National Harbor, but Kress said the company is looking to expand.

“There are public roads and private roads within National Harbor. We’re going to be on a combination of both,” he said. “And then as the summer goes on, we will continually increase how far we can take Olli as we do testing and data gathering on it.”

The company will also be building more of the shuttles and shopping them around to potential buyers. There are already a few lined up, according to Kress — later this year, he said Ollies will be available in Miami-Dade County, Fla., as well as Las Vegas. Europe is also a potential market.

“In Europe a lot of these sorts of regulations are much more lax … much less stringent,” he said. “So we’re already planning on having some in Denmark later this year.”

The shuttles are fully electric, with a range of just over 32 miles and a charging time of four and a half hours, but Kress said customization might be possible in the future. They can carry up to 12 passengers and have a maximum speed of 12 mph.

Kress said the company would most likely sell the vehicles to purchasers and might manage the use of the vehicles, but minutiae such as the price a passenger would pay per ride would be up to the owner.

“If you’re Disney and you buy a bunch of them for a theme park then it would be free, I’m sure," he said. "But if you’re a municipality and you want to cover 10 square miles of your downtown core, then I imagine you would price it like mass transit."

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.