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AMS Spring 2023

3D Printed Car Company Local Motors Shuts Down

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Multiple automotive and tech news sites have reported that Local Motors (LM), the manufacturer of the Olli 3D printed shuttle, has ceased operations. The main source of information comes from LinkedIn posts from former employees. The news comes after the vehicle firm made numerous pivots over the past decade, finally landing on autonomous shuttles made with 3D printing.

Prior to embracing additive manufacturing (AM), the company began with an interesting concept: crowd sourced vehicle designs. Once you purchased one, you were actually able to go to the LM site in Arizona and build it yourself with the LM team. Crowdsourcing then led to 3D printing, as the company sourced ideas for what would become its first 3D printed car.

The Rally Fighter featured a unique crowdsourced design with aftermarket parts and occasional 3D-printed upgrades. Image courtesy of Local Motors.

With Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Cincinnati Incorporated, LM participated in the development of a large-scale polymer 3D printer called the Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAAM) system. The BAAM is able to deposit carbon fiber reinforced plastic at amazing rates within a massive envelope, a concept that spurred other machine manufacturers like Thermwood and Ingersoll to create their own versions of the technology.

It also led to the creation of the Strati, a car with a chassis that was entirely 3D printed. Though it could only move at the speed of a golf cart, it generated enough hype that LM decided to pursue “the first road-ready, 3D printed car”. Another crowdsourced design, the resulting LM3D never actually did become road ready, despite LM providing a sticker price of $53,000 and accepting pre-orders.

The 3D printed Strati car. Image courtesy of Danielle Matich/Volim Photo.

Meanwhile, LM had pivoted from the Rally Fighter to 3D printed cars to crowdsourced projects for corporations via a social media platform called Launch Forth. Using the same model that had created its previous vehicles, LM partnered with firms like HP and the U.S. Marine Corps to ask the public for input on Martian habitats and all-terrain vehicles. It was with the launch of this program that it became apparent that LM was searching for the proper business model and hoping that corporate sponsors might help keep the company going.

This project faded away, too, much like the Rally Fighter and the LM3D. When asked what happened to the LM3D product line, former LM CEO Jay Rogers explained that he had reconsidered his vision for mobility around the world. It wasn’t personal vehicles, but smart, connected, and electric public transit. To take part in this emerging trend, LM shifted entirely to an autonomous shuttle called Olli. Uniquely, 80 percent of Olli’s body was 3D printed using BAAM machines. Rogers told me at the time:

“We launched a challenge to design a highway-capable vehicle that Local Motors then created a proof of concept of and debuted at the SEMA show in 2015. Our R&D team is continuing the materials testing and validation through 3D printing, now on the world’s largest composite 3D printer, located in our Knoxville microfactory. The highway car is not a current product offering, but that’s not to say it won’t be in the future! We are currently focused on Olli, our low-speed, self-driving, EV shuttle, as we see an immediate and future need for alleviating congestion and pollution, while providing a more accessible, sustainable transportation solution for all.”

Given the ingenuity of each product developed by LM, one wouldn’t be faulted for believing in each pivot. The vision was there, as was the technology, to an extent. However, even as it focused on Olli alone, there were issues. For one, the much-touted IBM Watson platform that initially powered the shuttle’s artificial intelligence (AI) was replaced in 2019 with AI from another provider.

Olli 2.0, the mostly 3D printed, autonomous electric shuttle. Image courtesy of Local Motors.

More importantly, as a Toronto test program for the vehicle began at the end of 2021, Olli crashed into a tree, critically injuring its human attendant. According to The Drive, the closure of the business was not related to the crash, though the trial run was paused due to the accident and COVID-19 health guidance. With Olli moving at such slow speeds, one would think that LM had found a sweet spot for autonomy, but the world may just not be quite ready for transport that drives on its own.

From the potential dangers of autonomous vehicles to a shaky business model, it seems that Local Motors couldn’t exactly find its footing during an economically unstable period of time. That doesn’t mean that it won’t re-open operations or that its former CEO, who moved to an advisory role last year, won’t re-emerge with a unique, new business idea. After all, Divergent’s Kevin Czinger was unable to launch an electric vehicle company his first go-around and is now on the verge of announcing a new partnership related to 3D printed cars.

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