The sun is beaming, and you feel like cruising down the Strip in a convertible. You take your sedan to a dealership and ask for the hardtop to be removed. While they’re at it, why not move the middle cup holder to the driver’s door? You’re left-handed, so this will be easier. The next day, you pick up your refurbished ride.
Although this seems like a scene from the distant future, Local Motors, a technology company that designs, builds and sells vehicles, wants to get there in the next decade. In September 2014, the startup debuted the world’s first entirely 3-D-printed car, the Strati. Composed of only 50 parts, the Strati drove out of a lab in Chicago after 44 hours of printing.
But the Strati is only half the story. Local Motors recently joined forces with UNLV to usher in a new approach to autonomous cars: a robot in the driver’s seat.
Entrepreneur Jay Rogers was sitting on a plane when an idea came to him that could change the way people think about building cars. He was on his way to Italy to speak to a group of manufacturers when he started thinking about clay modeling—a process used by automotive giants in which thousands of pounds of clay are molded into a life-size version of a vehicle. This model is usually the prototype of any new Ford, Toyota or Honda.
Decades ago, an artist used to sculpt the model by hand. Now, technology has usurped the sculptor and the artist instead mans a computer that cuts the clay based on a digital design. So Rogers thought, why not make a commercial vehicle that could be molded completely from a computer?
Before his plane hit the tarmac, he was scouring the Internet to see if anyone had taken this approach. No one had. “That was a big ‘Aha!’ moment in Local Motors’ history,” he says.
Rogers founded Local Motors in 2007, with headquarters in Phoenix and a small outpost on Stewart Avenue and Sixth Street in Downtown Las Vegas. The startup raised an undisclosed amount from a small group of investors, including Tony Hsieh and the VegasTechFund. With a passion for automobiles that spans 30 years, he began building his startup after seeing technology advance faster than the car industry could keep up.
“All of the cars sitting on lots waiting to be bought are an example of products that are grossly overstocked that people don’t want,” Rogers says. “So I wanted to change that.”
However, changing that means changing more than 100 years of manufacturing. When General Motors or Toyota wants to introduce a model, it usually takes seven years and more than $1 billion before that model appears on a lot, according to Rogers.
To offset the high cost, factories need to produce hundreds of thousands of cars. Enter Henry Ford’s assembly line. If an Accord or Corolla’s design needs to be tweaked, that takes even more time and more money. By comparison, a Local Motors vehicle takes two years and $15 million. The less expensive price tag means you don’t have to produce as many cars to turn a profit.
“I don’t care about mass manufacturing vehicles,” Rogers says. “I want to build local factories that are less expensive, and I want to put them all over the world.”
In the next 10 years, Rogers plans to have 100 Local Motors micro-factories all over the world, each printing 3,000 cars a year.
Although the Strati was the first 3-D-printed car to hit the road, the automotive industry has been using the process for decades to do rapid prototyping. Also known as solid imaging, 3-D printing was developed and patented by a man named Chuck Hull in the mid 1980s. To print an object, a designer creates a virtual blueprint that a computer then builds layer by layer. Materials such as rubber, plastic, polyurethane and metals can be used, depending on the printer. It can create toys, hearing aids, prosthetic limbs and much more.
As if challenging Henry Ford weren’t enough, Rogers’ vision will also change how people can customize their cars. Instead of showing personal flare with racing stripes or spinning rims, Rogers and his team want to put consumers in the artist’s chair, where they can work with their designers to create a unique vehicle.
That was how Local Motors came up with its highway-ready sports car. Their staff and a group of car experts reviewed more than 60 design submissions and settled on a sports car whose name will be unveiled in October. The car will be available to the public in the next 18 months for $50,000.
For Rogers, the fact that the car is 3-D printed is not the point. “Adjectives that the consumer is going to care about: technologically superior, sustainable and more customizable.”
But they didn’t stop there. This summer, Rogers saw something that would take Local Motors to UNLV and its cars even further into the future.
Paul Oh acts as a mild-mannered Tony Stark among a fleet of drones and humanoid robots nestled in a warehouse on the UNLV campus. Before coming to UNLV last year to build the unmanned autonomous systems lab, he taught mechanical engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia for 14 years and was a former program director for the National Science Foundation’s robotics portfolio.
His Iron Man is a 5-foot-5-inch, 175-pound robot called the Metal Rebel. His goal: Program Metal Rebel to drive one of Local Motors’ vehicles.
In early June, Oh, three postdoctorates and nine undergrads faced off with teams of 50 or more from NASA, MIT, Lockheed Martin and other international contenders in the DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) Robotics Challenge.
“DARPA is a strong predictor of what technology and innovations will come,” Oh says. “Now everyone is talking about driverless cars, but that’s technology we knew 10 years ago [because of DARPA].”
After the Fukushima, Japan, nuclear disaster in 2011, DARPA turned its attention to robots that can help in relief efforts when an area might be too contaminated or dangerous to send humans. So the challenge was to build a humanoid robot that could climb stairs, traverse rocky terrain, turn valves, use power tools and drive a car.
With a shoestring budget and a fraction of the labor, Oh and his team placed eighth in the competition, but Metal Rebel’s driving skills were superior to the others. “We completed the driving in 60 seconds,” Oh says. “Everyone else took around five minutes.” That caught the attention of Local Motors.
In August, the startup announced the LOCO program (short for Local Motors co-created), a partnership with UNLV to apply autonomous robotics to its cars. A 3-D-printed prototype resembling a golf cart arrived at Oh’s lab in August. The Strati should arrive in January.
Autonomous driving usually conjures the image of a car cruising along the highway, driverless, steering wheel turning as if by magic. Instead, Oh sees a robot at the wheel. A self-driving car can only do one thing. For Oh, a robot that performs many tasks (opening doors, picking up objects), including driving, is a better choice.
“As big as driverless has become, you’ll see that this is what is coming down the pike,” he says.
Before you think you can have a robot drive your kids to school for you, Oh sees disaster relief and suffering industries, such as transportation or agriculture, as early adopters. Big-rig truckers risk their lives when they drive heavy vehicles over frozen lakes to move supplies in and out of Canada or Alaska. With a robot driver, the transportation company wouldn’t have to change their vehicles and the threat to human lives would no longer exist.
From there, who knows?
Metal Rebel dangles from a crane in front of a wall where splotches of pigment have been whitewashed over and over again. Oh and his postdocs are teaching him to paint, one more skill to add to his overflowing toolbox. By January he will be able to drive Local Motors’ prototype, hopefully in time for the International Consumer Electronics Show.
In 2013, Google debuted its autonomous car at CES. Just two years later, that technology is already trickling into luxury vehicles. In 10 years, many predict that millions of self-driving cars will be on the road. Who knows what will be on the road 10 years after the Metal Rebel cruises the exhibit floor?