IBM’s Watson can make drinks, detect sarcasm, and kick your ass at Jeopardy. The world’s most famous computer already acts so much more like a human than most people I know. Now transportation startup Local Motors is putting Watson behind the wheel.
Olli is a new autonomous electric minibus powered by IBM’s famously friendly AI. The 12-passenger vehicle is manufactured right here in the US, using 3D-printing facilities at Local Motors’ plant outside Phoenix.
Local Motors is known not only for its manufacturing innovation but also for integrating AI into its vehicles, and has previously worked with IBM and Intel on a project called the Rally Fighter.
Watson won’t be driving the bus—yet. The first step is to use Watson’s intelligence, paired with 30 sensors throughout the vehicle, to analyze transportation data, gather information about the route, and interact with passengers:
Passengers will be able to interact conversationally with Olli while traveling from point A to point B, discussing topics about how the vehicle works, where they are going, and why Olli is making specific driving decisions. Watson empowers Olli to understand and respond to passengers’ questions as they enter the vehicle, including about destinations (“Olli, can you take me downtown?”) or specific vehicle functions (“how does this feature work?” or even “are we there yet?”). Passengers can also ask for recommendations on local destinations such as popular restaurants or historical sites based on analysis of personal preferences. These interactions with Olli are designed to create more pleasant, comfortable, intuitive and interactive experiences for riders as they journey in autonomous vehicles.
How passengers will communicate with a self-driving car—especially one that has no steering wheel—is actually one of the biggest concerns for people riding in autonomous vehicles. This is also something that Google hasn’t really addressed, at least publicly. It’s a good idea to get passengers used to the idea of talking to their car and trusting it to take them where they want to go, and it’s made even better with Watson’s reassuringly familiar voice. This concept should help the public get more comfortable with self-driving technology in general.
More importantly—when can you jump on the Watson bus? Olli will first be seen rolling around the Washington DC area, where the public can take tours and learn more about the bus at a facility in Maryland. After a stop in Vegas, Olli will go to Miami later this year, where it will likely be shuttling passengers around in one of the first self-driving bus programs in the country (there’s another one planned for Northern California). Please, citizens of Miami, I beg of you to board this bus and make endless videos of yourselves asking Watson “Are we there yet?”