The future arrives for me in the form of a rectangle on four wheels, about half the size of a conventional school bus, with large windows all around. When the side door opens, an impressively mustachioed safety attendant named Buddy welcomes me aboard. Standing at a small command terminal, Buddy cues up the route and disengages the emergency brake, and we peel out of the parking spot at a cool 11 miles per hour. This is no David Hasselhoff-ian Knight Rider driving experience—then again, KITT was science fiction. I put my sunglasses on and kick back as Olli comes to a gradual stop at a four-way intersection and then navigates a left turn seamlessly.
This is my inaugural ride on the Olli shuttle bus, and my first-ever ride in an autonomous vehicle, seated comfortably on a 3D-printed seat with a belt fastened across my lap, cruising along at a speed attainable by a skilled tricycling kindergartener. With Buddy. And his garage-broom-bristle ’stache.
On a Wednesday afternoon in January, I’m in National Harbor, the Maryland-based sales and demonstration facility operated by Local Motors. The Arizona-based automaker is known for crowdsourcing vehicle design and then creating those vehicles using advanced manufacturing techniques. (It was Local Motors that created the Strati, the first fully 3D-printed car. The Olli shuttle I rode on was designed by Colombian-born Edgar Sarmiento; roughly 80 percent of the thing is 3D-printed.) Chances are you’ve heard of Olli, especially if you live in the Washington, D.C., area. For the last several years, Local Motors has teased a wider rollout of its electric autonomous shuttle bus in the D.C. area.
In 2019, Olli seems to have finally found its wheels. The ride I took in January marks phase one of Local Motors’ pilot project in National Harbor, the waterfront dining and entertainment district just south of the nation’s capital on the Maryland side of the Potomac River. This year, Local Motors is offering autonomous rides on the Olli, along fixed routes around the neighborhood’s main shopping and eating areas. Later this year, Local Motors will increase the number of buses operating along these routes from one to three, part of a pilot project to prove not only that a higher number of self-driving shuttles can operate safely, but also that the demand for these shuttles exists in the first place.
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