Olli won’t drive itself around Knoxville

Olli the self-driving trolley won’t be on Knoxville’s downtown streets anytime soon, with or without a human attendant.

Knoxville-based Local Motors introduced the autonomous electric vehicle in June 2016, envisioning it as transportation for college students or a parking lot shuttle. In April 2017, Knoxville officials and Local Motors announced in a Market Square ceremony that Visit Knoxville would get one or two Ollis.

It was intended to be on downtown streets in spring 2018, taking visitors on programmed tours or shuttling festivalgoers between venues. Bumpas said at the April event that Visit Knoxville had put down a $20,000 deposit for the vehicle.

But there things stalled. A city formed task force was supposed to evaluate Olli’s performance April 5 at a Maryland testing ground. If that went well, Bumpas said in March, an Olli would be tested on a closed course in Knoxville in May 2018, and could’ve seen public use soon afterward.

But she never heard results from that Maryland test, she said.

“I don’t think the city’s pursuing it anymore either,” Bumpas said.

In early May, Local Motors Vice President of Marketing Brittany Stotler said via email that while Local Motors did have Visit Knoxville’s $20,000 deposit, “the purchase agreement is still in progress.”

But it was also right about that time, according to Bumpas, when the deal ended.

“We are no longer a partner to this project,” Bumpas said in an email. “They refunded our deposit and we have moved on.”

Visit Knoxville hasn’t had direct contact with Local Motors since the tourism agency got its deposit back, she said.

Local Motors partnered with Robotic Research to improve Olli’s safety with the best possible sensors and autonomous driving technology, but that collaboration didn’t slow the project down, Stotler said.

Even then, the plan was for Olli pilot programs to take place in “controlled, low-speed environments” for safety reasons, she said.

“As regulations develop and autonomous technology is approved in more environments, Olli will be deployed in those more complex deployments,” she wrote May 7.

The first vehicles were scheduled to deploy at the end of that month — where, Stotler didn’t say — but they would all have an “onboard steward” trained by Local Motors ready to take control if necessary.

Olli’s future

Since Olli’s introduction many other autonomous vehicles have been tested on American roads by companies including Google, Tesla and Uber; accidents have been few — and were usually the fault of humans rather than vehicle systems, according to analyses — but some of the resulting crashes were fatal, and that has put the brakes on wider use of driverless cars.

Bumpas said she didn’t fault anyone for the dissolution of Knoxville’s Olli deal.

Acceptance of autonomous vehicles is probably still just a couple of years away, requiring further testing and safeguards to reassure the public and its safety, she said.

In 2017, Local Motors CEO John Rogers said in a news release that Knoxville was a prime spot to use Olli because it’s here that the company 3D-printed its first car, and Tennessee was one of the first states to allow driverless vehicles on public roads.

In the last few months Local Motors has sent two Olli research vehicles to the State University of New York at Buffalo and Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.; one to electronics company LG in South Korea; another to Australia; and demonstrated Olli pilot vehicles in Denmark and Chicago, Stotler said.

On Dec. 14, the company announced that colleges in Arizona and California would get Ollis in early 2019, as winners of Local Motors’ first “Olli fleet challenge,” she said. The next round of competition will be in the Washington, D.C., area; but her list of tests and deployments does not mention Knoxville.

All Ollis in service will still have onboard human stewards, Stotler said.

Local Motors’ Pellissippi microfactory is working on further improvements, including an Olli made completely by 3D printing, she said.

“We are still planning for end of 2019 / early 2020 commercial vehicle launch,” Stotler wrote.

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Jim Gaines

The East Tennessee Economic Development Agency markets and recruits business for the 15 counties in the greater Knoxville-Oak Ridge region of East Tennessee. Visit www.eteda.org

Published January 4, 2019