Self-driving trolley coming to Knoxville

4/20/2017

A self-driving electric trolley, dubbed “Olli,” will be tested this fall and may be on Knoxville streets in 2018, shuttling tourists between set points.

City officials unveiled the vehicle, made by Knoxville-based Local Motors, on Market Square Thursday morning.

"Today is a sneak peek into the future," said Kim Bumpas, president of Visit Knoxville.

It’s a step toward regular use of self-driving vehicles, in contact with computerized signals responding in real time to traffic conditions, though that remains years away, Mayor Madeline Rogero told a small crowd gathered at the Bill Lyons Pavilion on Market Square.

Earlier this week she formally announced a partnership with Hardin Valley-based GRIDSMART, which donated traffic-information collectors for several busy intersections, particularly along Kingston Pike. The data those devices gather could eventually be used by autonomous vehicles.

"We live in a really cool city, don't you think?" Rogero said.

Rogero said mayors nationwide are talking about how self-driving vehicles will affect traffic and urban planning, but just a couple of years ago she wouldn’t have believed a vehicle like Olli was coming so soon.

It’s a chance for Knoxville, already a center for innovation and gatherings of high-tech entrepreneurs, to be in the forefront of autonomous vehicle use, she said. But before it hits the streets there are many engineering, legal and safety issues to deal with.

"Obviously, our first concern on all of this is public safety," Rogero said.

Bumpas said the trolley on display Thursday isn’t one Knoxville will actually use. Two Ollis — one for a backup — should be delivered by August or September, she said. They will get another airing during Innov865 Week in September.

The vehicles will likely get their first use in the confines of Chilhowee Park, Rogero said.

"First we have to do some testing and some practice runs on it,” she said.

At least at first, an operator from Local Motors always will be on board, according to Rogero.

How to use Olli in the long run is a “very fluid conversation,” Bumpas said. It seats about a dozen people. The trolley will probably run between fixed points for conventions or tourism events, but may eventually have a fixed route, Bumpas said.

"The sky's the limit,” she said.

Parts of the trolley were 3D-printed, as were some of the tools used to make other parts, said Greg Haye, Local Motors general manager.

Local Motors was looking for Olli test sites as it seeks to market the vehicle, and Knoxville was a natural choice since the city had already worked closely with the company on its first 3D printed vehicle, Rogero said.

"They reached out to us to let us know that they had this product," she said.

Visit Knoxville will actually own the two trolleys; the tourism agency has put down a $20,000 deposit on the vehicles, but the final cost is unknown, Bumpas said.

"All of that is still kind of in negotiation," she said.

Concept drawings on display Thursday show the trolley painted with local tourism logos, but Bumpas said no final designs have been selected.

Olli uses sensors and cameras to react faster than a human driver, according to a city news release.

“Tennessee is one of the first eight states to allow driverless cars on public roads. Knoxville is the town in which Local Motors 3D printed its first car,” Local Motors CEO John Rogers said in the news release. “3D printing unlocks vehicle makers of the future to adopt technologies of the future faster than ever before. Therefore, it is no surprise that Knoxville, Local Motors and Tennessee would see Olli on the road first.”

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Jim Gaines

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