July 11, 2015 | By Alec

It’s an exciting week for the future of 3D printed cars. Just a few days ago Local Motors unveiled the designs chosen for their commercial range of 3D printed cars, and now the first steps are being made towards autonomous 3D printed vehicles. The same Local Motors, an Arizona-based pioneer in the field of 3D printing cars, and the University of Michigan have just started development on a program called SmartCart to get autonomous 3D printed cars the size of golf carts on the roads.

Local Motors, of course, have already developed the roadworthy 3D printed Strati car last year, but they have now sent another 3D printed custom-designed vehicle to the research team at the University of Michigan. This low-speed vehicle was unveiled at a press conference in Tempe, Arizona. It is one of three vehicles that Local Motors is to send to the research team with the goal of developing autonomous cars. ‘Think Uber, but with low-speed, autonomous cars,’ associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science (and the leader of this project) Edwin Olson said on his university’s website. ‘The goal of SmartCarts is for us to begin understanding the challenges of a transportation-on-demand system built around autonomous cars.’

So what’s the plan? Over the course of the next year, the team led by Olson will develop autonomous driving capabilities, as well as a mobile phone interface that can be used to request rides. The cars will then be tested at Mcity, a vehicle test site operated by the Mobility Transformation Center at the University of Michigan. This 32 acre test city is a perfect venue for these plans.

There, researchers will conduct experiments that can simplify and clarify autonomous driving challenges. Among the plans for efficient testing are the development of landmarks to help vehicles navigate safely, and the development of blue lines that autonomous cars can follow. Of course, this is difficult to do on a large scale (such as throughout an entire country), but it could be used for reaching the initial goal of low-speed transit systems on campuses, in amusement parks, airports and so on. ‘Our focus is on transportation as a system,’ said David Munson Dean of Engineering. ‘Lots of people are talking about this as the way of the future, but we're aiming to build a test bed that will allow us to stop talking and start doing. If we can put such a system into service, it would be a huge research enabler on campus, and it would be one of only a few like it in the world.’

‘On this project, we're deliberately 'cheating' on the autonomy as much as we can—not because we can't build autonomous cars, but because we need a working test bed now so that we can begin to look at all of the other challenges of an on-demand system,’ Olson said.The other challenges faced by the researches include efficiently finding out how passengers’ preferences and expectations can be incorporated, as well as efficiently plotting out routes of a whole fleet of vehicles. ‘These factors—not just the self-driving technology—are critical to the economic viability and social acceptance of a full-scale transportation service,’ Olson explained.

The 3D printed car at the basis of all this resembles a traditional golf cart, but by 3D printing the body in fiber-reinforced ABS makes it lightweight and strong enough for this ambitious plans. It also means that the body itself can be easily modified to suit the specific needs of autonomous driving. If an additional sensor needs to be incorporated in the body somewhere, they just need to print a new component.

Corey Clothier, Local Motors' autonomous vehicle lead, further emphasized this advantage. ‘The advantage is speed of design and manufacturing. The 3D printing process and our co-creation process lets us and our partners be creative fast,’ he said. ‘We're excited to partner with the University of Michigan on this. They're real leaders in autonomous systems and their approach on this is brilliantly simple. We look forward to seeing it unfold.’

The initial pilot for the SmartCart program has been funded for one year by the Mobility Transformation Center, and hopefully it can move on to a longer testing sequence on the Michigan campus after that. While autonomous cars are thus still quite far away, 3D printing is playing a key role in its initial steps. 

 

 

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