Meet Olli, the Autonomous Shuttle Bus

IBM and Local Motors Put Watson Behind the Wheel

There are lots of tech trends in this initiative working in unity: autonomous driving, electric connected vehicles, voice user interface, intelligent assistants, cloud computing, advanced sensors and 3D printing.

Last week, IBM along with the Arizona-based manufacturer Local Motors introduced the first driverless vehicle to use IBM’s Watson cognitive super computing platform. Dubbed Olli, the electric vehicle was unveiled at Local Motors’ new facility in National Harbor, Maryland, outside of Washington, DC. Local Motors is an integrator of vehicle technology and the creator of what is perhaps the world’s first 3D-printed car. On its Web site, Local Motors stresses the use of crowd-sourced ideas and 3D printing for design and for supporting short turnaround times for vehicles meeting specific needs.

Olli is equipped with some of the world’s most advanced vehicle technology including IBM Watson Internet of Things for automotive uses. The companies behind Olli expect the vehicle will be in use in the near term on public roads in Washington, DC., and will debut in Miami-Dade County and Las Vegas later in 2016.

There’s a lot of new technology coming together here. IBM Watson essentially provides Olli with a brain, allowing the vehicle to react and learn using data produced by more than 30 sensors embedded throughout the vehicle. These will be added and adjusted to meet passenger needs and local preferences, enabling interactions between the vehicle and its passengers.

IBM Watson empowers Olli to understand and respond to passengers’ questions as they enter the autonomous-driving vehicle, providing information on destination times, the weather and even sports scores. Using cloud-based artificial intelligence, a voice interface and constant connectivity, Olli can be described as a rolling Echo — Amazon’s digital home assistant that listens and responds to a homeowner’s requests.

Vehicular technology is not altogether new for IBM; the company launched its technology for the automotive unit in September 2015 and has already allied with Honda to use IBM Watson’s technology and analytics in the automaker’s Formula One cars and pits. IBM has also teamed up with Subaru to explore uses of its Watson platform to improve the car company’s driver-assist technology called EyeSight. Automakers are keen to integrate cloud and artificial intelligence technologies in their products in preparation for the development of driverless cars.

CCS Insight believes that autonomous vehicles are a mega trend with all the technology enablers available to make it work. While the concept seems a long way off to many consumers, in reality there’s already an “autonomous-driving creep” happening, with cars that can park and stop themselves, reacting faster than human drivers. These are robots on the roads. The real challenge now isn’t technology, but trust from the man on the street, as well as from regulators. Autonomous-driving developers have to prove their concept products to a sceptical world.

Last year Tesla introduced an “autopilot” software update for its Model S, giving the car the skills to manoeuvre between lanes and proactively prevent collisions. The maker of the sensor-filled vehicle might not go as far as calling this autonomous driving, but this is really a question of degree.

It’s encouraging to see that IBM Watson has made friends with Olli, creating an electric public-transport vehicle that can be used by municipalities, universities and theme parks. There’s no doubt that things are moving in the right direction, creating new opportunities for automakers, component suppliers, wireless operators and regulators looking to reduce traffic-related problems such as deaths from accidents, and pollution. In a world full of packed roadways and distracted drivers, autonomous driving is becoming a clear focus area.