emblem-blackWe are currently undergoing a seismic shift within the automobile industry, from autonomy to electric-power to 3D printing, the vehicles we have all become familiar with over the last century will soon look and function in ways unimaginable just a couple of decades ago.

Over the last three years alone, we have watched eagerly as companies like Google have brought forth self-driving cars, proving that machines are better drivers than human beings. At the same time, companies like Tesla have begun bringing electric vehicles into the mainstream with their Model S, soon to launch Model X SUV, and forthcoming Model 3, which will be priced under $40,000. Finally companies like Local Motors have begun 3D printing cars in a way that allows for complete customization.

Last week, we briefly mentioned that Local Motors had been working on two mule-like vehicles for their DDM University project. Today we got word that the University of Michigan had received one of these vehicles, and will launch alo3 ‘SmartCarts’ program which combines all three of the futuristic technologies we’ve mentioned above; 3D printing, autonomy and electric powertrains.

“Think Uber, but with low-speed, autonomous cars,” said Edwin Olson, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science who leads the project. “The goal of SmartCarts is for us to begin understanding the challenges of a transportation-on-demand system built around autonomous cars.”

The vehicle the university has received, is one of three that Local Motors will be building for the purpose of University research. Printed out of an ABS/carbon fiber composite, the same basic material as their Strati car which they unveiled last year to the world, this vehicle also incorporates a softer material known as NinjaFlex. Ninjaflex has been used on the front and back fenders, as well as the seat, and is produced by a company called Fenner Drives.

The SmartCart project is funded for a year through the Mobility Transformation Center, and seeks to retrofit these 3D printed electric vehicles with lasers and cameras to allow them to drive themselves. The university will then use the car within their Mcity test facility, a collaboration between the Michigan Dep. of Transportation and University researchers. The test facility is a realistic off-roadway environment, representing an actual city which occupies a staggering 32 acres of land.

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“Our focus is on transportation as a system,” said David Munson, the Robert J. Vlasic 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.”

The eventual goal here is to utilize these three exciting technologies to allow students and faculty to order a car via a smartphone app and have it pick them up in a matter of minutes. The car would then take them to their desired location in a safe, efficient manner. These vehicles could eventually be rolled out in other venues, such as amusement parks, corporate campuses, airports, city centers, and assisted living communities. As for why they are using 3D printed cars for this project, Corey Clothier, Local Motors’ autonomous vehicle lead explains:

“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. 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.”

It will be very interesting to see how quickly this project progresses, and what the future may hold for autonomous, 3D printed electric vehicles. Let us know your thoughts on this project in the 3D Printed SmartCart forum thread on 3DPB.com.

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