Kevin Borras talks 3D printing, autonomous vehicles, Mobility as a Service and micro-manufacturing with Local Motors’ Maud Chidiac
You made a bit of a splash at the ITS World Congress in Bordeaux in October and Local Motors was clearly one of the busiest booths in the exhibition hall. For people not familiar with the company though, can you explain what Local Motors is and does?
Local Motors is a world of vehicle innovation. We are a technology company that designs, builds and sells vehicles, just like any other vehicle maker. But our true purpose goes far beyond than that. We do it by combining two processes that are co-creation and micro-manufacturing, powered by Direct Digital Manufacturing. What is special in our production is that the design is co-created, and the building is made in our decentralized micro-factories to create locally relevant vehicles and to face tomorrow’s challenges in every city. That’s why from the 3D printed car in Phoenix (LM3D Swim) we even turned to the production of autonomous vehicles in Berlin with the Awesome System, a self-optimized driverless vehicle system. Awesome aims at redefining and optimizing mobility in cities.
So what’s the thinking behind creating an autonomous shuttle? And how on earth do you go about convincing a city that it’s a workable solution?
We worked with our community in Berlin on how to face European cities’ challenges in a time of growing urbanization. The infrastructures have to adapt to a changing world where people, traffic, transactions and connections are deeply increased. By 2050, 70 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities that are facing increased demand for mobility as the population grows. Current transport systems rely heavily on conventional cars that can’t be sustainable as the population is growing.
Urban areas are now experiencing pollution, congestion, noise and waste of public real estate. To solve these growing issues, the current solutions are not enough. Plus, operators and public transportation providers are facing new challenges: limitations of the fixes route lines, economic limitations from an infrastructure investment, challenges to increase or maintain the level and quality of their customers. The conventional bus lines operating at high peak capacity imply more costs, and a waste of space and energy. People have to be educated to shared transportation, and the rise of actors such as DriveNow and Car 2 Go are true proofs of this changing behaviour.
So the ultimate goal is to help cities solve the onerous problem of how to maximise their mobility options?
Yes. Using the logic of combining co-creation and micro-manufacturing, we led the Urban Mobility Challenge on our online platform, to involve our community and engage our stakeholders, the main goal being to define solutions to optimize mobility in cities. After this challenge we came up with the idea that the future of transportation is going to be shared, sustainable, and driverless. By collaborating with our co-creators, we went to this new transportation system.
And you see electric, driverless, shared vehicles as one potential solution?
The Awesome System is composed of four pillars: the vehicle (hardware), the back-end interface (softwares), the front-end interface (application) and the services.
The vehicles are driverless, electric and connected. The first vehicle that we are building for this system – we’ll have the prototype in April 2016 – is the Edgar 08. Edgar is the name of the designer, one of the co-creators of the platform who designed the vehicle online from Bogota, Colombia. Edgar 08 means that it’s an eight-passenger capacity vehicle. Depending on the use case we want to address, we’ll build vehicles with a different capacity (Edgar 02 for private usage, Edgar 15 for long-distance trips, Edgar Cargo for goods delivery). The vehicles are sustainable, smart and accessible, and are customizable accordingly to the city where they’re implemented. The vehicle can re-route itself thanks to a real-time data analysis and algorithms, according to congestion and accidents. They’re able to interact with the environment, the pedestrians, and regulations. Plus, the machine-learning optimization will improve the capacity of the vehicles over time.
The system works with an application, on which the customer is registered, localized, for the vehicle to come and pick him up at his localisation point. The real strength of the system will be to operate on-demand. The more passengers come in the vehicle, the more the vehicle will adjust its itinerary. The vehicles will be dispatched all over the area to cover every need of every passenger and optimize the traffic and operate without fixed routes.
The whole system is backed by a software package that includes the fleet management operation, Bestmile, that works like a control tower to have an overview of the shuttles’ interactions, the artificial intelligence from IBM and the 3D mapping technology to integrate real data and actually operate thanks to a constant analysis of the road and environment.
It’s a hugely ambitious project and even a couple of years ago it would have been unthinkable to have such a system up and running, even on a trial basis, in the second quarter of 2016. How has the concept got the verge of the market in such a short timeframe?
The technology has arrived and now it’s up to us to see how we can apply it to contribute to smart cities. There are multiple use cases that we want to address with this system. Extending the network – extension of time and of covered space – to create last-mile solutions, connect cities to airports or municipalities, and extent the transportation service during the night. Enhance the network to fill in the gaps in the current transportation network by providing alternative routes in under-served zones. All in all, we believe in optimizing the current transportation system to change the way we experience mobility for a more connected and dynamic city. We believe that this is going to be the typical iceberg, leveraging new potentialities of moving, interacting, and thus living.
Imagine a world where cities offer a dynamic mobility service, adapting to the demand and changing the way we consider transportation. A world where sustainable mobility and smart vehicles collide to reduce infrastructure costs, pollution emission and improve population access and convenience. With the Awesome System, the experience of mobility will be on demand, affordable, connected and sustainable.
Driverless vehicles are certainly helping to propel our subject matter in to the general public’s consciousness. How do you see that market progressing?
The theme of autonomous driving is gaining rapidly importance worldwide. Even if the timeframe of the system depends massively on regulations, we have positioned ourselves for a market push for regulations to convince authorities. The rapidly progressing development in the automation of driving function, as well as techniques to automate vehicle manufacturing [3D printing] can create entirely new possibilities for automated vehicles. Plus, the vehicle itself will be produced with a very high degree of automation in a local micro-factory via new type of hardware and software, using DDM.
This is not just new technology but a new way of thinking about technology and what it can do.
Exactly. With our system, our goal is to address multiple use cases, either for private or public areas, according to the demand. It is about to change the way cities are organized and driven, and the challenges are yet to come. How can new mobility actors like us can shape the way mobility is experienced, charged, integrated? What would it take for most of us not to have a car and how much education about the benefits of shared transportation is required?
You have pretty much described the notion of Mobility as a Service.
Leveraging Mobility as a Service (MaaS) for the model, we want to integrate our system with all the different transportation services. By doing this, we can reduce waste, increase capacity and provide adapted vehicles. Our system using MaaS will allow us generating better information, helping people to make the better choice for their journeys, analyzing the traffic data. We want to offer the same level of service, making sure that our vehicle system is affordable, sustainable and fitting to the new cities with today’s dynamics. The connected vehicles combined with a smart use of information provided by transportation data are a way to enhance the performance of urban services. We aim at optimizing transportation for both customers and municipalities. Local Motors’ major technological improvements, with autonomous vehicles, can fundamentally reshape the interaction between human beings, the environment, and the public transportation providers for a better use of space, resources and a better security on roads. By a better understanding of this data, we can define completely new traffic habits that will change the way urbanized cities are invested by people and vehicles. What we are doing is triggering the mobility revolution, and we are very proud to kick it off in Berlin, the first Local Motors’ footprint outside of the US.
I think the phrase “grand plans” is quite appropriate for what you have in store in 2016. How is this momentous year going to play out for Local Motors?
As per as our three principles – the design, the building and the selling – we’re first going to open the Lab for the design, in April 2016, before having the micro-factory in Germany and the retail shop. We consider the Lab as an offline relay to our online platform. Our goal is to create a daily-life relationship with our co-creators, powered by some punctual events such as Hackathons. We’re now focusing our efforts on the opening of the Lab to showcase the prototype of the Edgar for a first large-scale event around the cybersecurity of the Edgar shuttle, where all the developers, designers, engineers are invited to join. This Lab is going to be a big shift in Berlin’s mobility ecosystem, as a place for technological experimentation for mobility around the two main current projects of Local Motors: the 3D printing technology and the autonomous vehicles.
Maud Chidiac is project manager of Local Motors’ Awesome System.