3D Printing. Autonomous. Microfactories. CoCreation. While these four words may seem to have nothing in common, that’s not the case for the folks at Local Motors, a midsized vehicle manufacturing company founded by Jay Rogers with corporate headquarters in San Francisco. With satellite offices and micro manufacturing plants across the US, Local Motors uses cocreation to rapidly develop products that are relevant to a businesses/buyers need as it ties around mobility. And while Local Motors is the physical and developmental aspect of Rogers’ vision for the company, there was also a need for a service side or platform to help take the vision further. Launch Forth was created to forge together designers and engineers, online, where SaaS (Software as a Service), MaaS (Mobility as a Service) & TaaS (Transportation as a Service) help shine a light on what the future can be throughout mobility and consumer electronics. In a nutshell, both businesses work to help a company go from an idea to a product launch in a relatively small timeframe.
I had the pleasure of interviewing David Woessner, the general manager of Local Motors, National Harbor. Pronounced Daa-Vid, Mr. Woessner is responsible for the northeast region of Local Motors and oversees the sales and demonstration of vehicles, as well as the technology for the vehicles made in the National Harbor. His region spans from Virginia to Maine and from New York to Minnesota. A graduate of the Georgia Institute of Technology, and former NSBE (National Society of Black Engineers) board member, Woessner took his time to explain, in layman’s terms, the very technical and engineering focused business that is Local Motors.
CarBelles: On your Local Motors Website, the tagline reads “We are focused on low volume manufacturing of open source vehicle design using multiple microfactories and cocreation platform”. How would you explain that in layman’s terms?
David Woessner: I’ll tackle the end of the sentence first. The SaaS platform, in layman’s terms means that we use the power of the crowd (people), online and offline, to design and develop goals. So, we have from over 150 countries about 175,000 people signed up on our platform. We’re not a social network, we’re like a maker network. So, imagine Facebook in its first six months probably had 170,000 users. We are at that point and these people are makers, engineers, vehicle enthusiasts, and other types of enthusiasts who are interested in engaging with us on how to design and develop vehicles.
CB: Interesting. And how does direct digital manufacturing fit into this?
DW: Direct digital manufacturing uses advanced manufacturing to make low volume vehicles in microfactories. What that means is using whatever the latest method is to make low volume vehicles in small scale microfactories. The purpose is to use advanced tooling and advanced materials and methods to do things like 3D print vehicles that the traditional automakers don’t think about.
Woessner explained that the National Harbor facility was only considered a half microfactory, and its primary focus is for demonstration purposes. While it can print 3D vehicles there, it’s at a very low volume. Their microfactory in Knoxville is about 50000 sq ft and the one in Chandler is roughly 40000 sq ft. The machine in National Harbor, which is 2 years old, can print about 90 lbs per hour. The next generation machines, currently in the testing phase, will have the ability to print 180 lbs per hour.
After getting a better explanation of what Local Motors was about, I transitioned to what initially led me to interview the company in the first place, Olli. Olli is the self-driving mass transit vehicle created by Local Motors. According to the website, the front end interface is represented by the Modally mobile app. Thanks to our modern design, the customer’s journey is simple and efficient: Register, Book, Ride, Pay. Book a ride in the Modally App and await the nearest Olli to pick you up and comfortably transport you to your destination. With no drivers seat, and seating created to optimize the rider experience, Olli has been shuttling a few hundred riders a day in Germany at the Euref Campus as part of a pilot program.
CB: Where does the much talked about Olli fit into all of this? I know it’s not a 3D vehicle.
DW: We had Olli here [at the National Harbor] from July until October of 2016, almost 18 months ago. It was then shipped all over the country for shows and demonstrations. Then it got shipped to Arizona for upgrades that started last summer. And it’s now finishing up those upgrades and final testing. In the next six months, we’re going to convert the space that currently has the printer and have it as a service area. We’re going to start operating about three Ollis around National Harbor. We’ll also service, store and charge Ollis here in our facility.
CB: Are these Ollis going to be owned by the National Harbor?
DW: The Harbor has not bought them yet. They’ve talked about it. We’ve had conversations with MGM, as well as the Gaylord, as well as the Petersons who are the developers of the Harbor, but they have not purchased them as of yet. So, they’ll be demonstration vehicles that potentially may be branded if we sell sponsorships.
CB: Switching lanes a bit….I’ve attended a few automotive panel discussions and the future of eMobility seems to be at the forefront of all of these talks. The biggest concern from everyone is the regulatory and legislative push back from the government that prevents automakers from implementing better safety technologies and fuel efficiencies for automobiles. Does Local Motors face those same types of hurdles?
DW: There is a vehicle class called low speed vehicles and that’s actually a classification as part of NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety) and the associated Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. So at one point we were thinking about commercializing these kind of vehicles and competing with club cars and Polaris and GEM cars. At the time when we were really working with those vehicles, the machining/manufacturing process and the material cost just didn’t allow for a business case.
I think going forward we have a business case but our focus and our resources are dedicated to commercializing Olli. I say that because we have a vehicle that could technically provide electric mobility, at low speeds, at a really low cost, that’s pretty safe but we couldn’t commercialize it yet because of a number of constraints.
CB: How does that affect Olli?
DW: Regarding the OLLI, it is a completely new ballgame because we not only have a low speed electric vehicle but we also have a low speed electric vehicle that drives itself.
And that has no real traditional human control. So, no steering wheel, no brake pedals, no gas pedals, no operator seats and no forward facing seating position for an operator.
It’s really non-traditional and the way that statue is currently written at both the federal level and often also many state levels, they set the safety standards and the testing.
And then the states and the local municipalities develop the rules around registration, licensing, insurance liability and enforcing traffic laws.
For example in New York, you have to have one hand on the steering wheel at all times. I can’t do that in an Olli.
CB: What are you doing to help push those governing entities in the right direction?
DW: We’re working with both federal and state legislatures and regulators to continually make those points. I had a meeting with Senate Commerce staff yesterday who have the pending bill, the AV Start Act (ASA), which the passed the House several months ago. ASA has stalled in the Senate because of some individuals that have concerns around safety.
CB: While you work on the legislative side, are there any loopholes or work arounds?
DW: One way is that you can do pretty much anything you want as long as you do it on private roads, so there are some deployments that we’re looking at just doing. The other thing is there are sometimes local or state wide rules that’ll allow you to put vehicles that are technically certified at the federal level on the road for demonstration or testing purposes given certain criteria. There’s an exemption process at the federal level which says if you meet certain criteria or if you have certain requirements that you can’t meet because of the certification requirements, then you are allowed to claim hardship or either claim financial burden or a couple other things and try to get exempt from that specific requirement and standard. At the end of the day, Local Motors is trying to be very collaborative with the federal government and we’ve gotten good engagement from the authorities.
CB: So here’s a curveball question for you! Since you have a previous relationship with NSBE, has Local Motors ever considered partnering up with the NSBEs SEEK program to bring this type of cocreation thinking to a younger generation?
DW: I’ve actually reached out to NSBE/SEEK and I’ve hoped they would take me up on the offer of 20000 sq ft of rent free space, but we’ve yet to make that happen.
The interview went on for almost an hour, with an offer to tour the facility. I opted to come back with the kids during Spring Break since I knew David was running behind for another meeting.
What Local Motors is doing is groundbreaking, there’s no doubt about that. From the 3D vehicles to the autonomous driving vehicle, Olli, Jay Roger’s vision to expand the advancement of technology as far as Mars, seems quite possible. The staff that I’ve talked to while there seem to share in that vision. That’s the most important aspect of a great business.
For more information about Local Motors, visit https://localmotors.com.