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IBM’s Watson makes a move into self-driving cars with Olli, a minibus from Local Motors

TechCrunch TechCrunch 16/06/2016 Ingrid Lunden

IBM today took the wraps off its first big foray into the world of self-driving cars, not as the driver of them, but as the brain behind making your self-driving journey a little more interesting: IBM Watson, the company’s AI platform, is powering services in Olli — an electric-powered vehicle that can carry up to 12 people that has been designed by Local Motors, a car maker based out of Arizona that uses newer technologies like 3D printing to bring down the cost of making cars on a low-volume basis. The cars will start operations first in Washington, DC, before expanding to deployments in Miami-Dade County and Las Vegas later this year. IBM says Miami-Dade County will run a pilot to transport people around Miami with autonomous vehicles.

Local Motors and IBM, along with Intel, have worked together before, specifically on its Rally Fighter concept car. It looks like Olli might be the first commercial product that has resulted from the partnership.

To be clear, Olli will be using a special version of Watson aimed at automotive applications and it is not fully powering the car’s self-driving features, but rather aimed at “improving the passenger experience,” according to a statement from IBM.

“IBM technology, including IBM Watson or IBM Watson IoT technology, does not control, navigate or drive Olli. Rather, the IBM Watson capabilities of Olli will help to improve the passenger experience and allow natural interaction with the vehicle,” the company said.

But it looks like this is the first step. “Olli offers a smart, safe and sustainable transportation solution that is long overdue,” John B. Rogers, co-founder of Local Motors, said in a statement. “Olli with Watson acts as our entry into the world of self-driving vehicles, something we’ve been quietly working on with our co-creative community for the past year. We are now ready to accelerate the adoption of this technology and apply it to nearly every vehicle in our current portfolio and those in the very near future. I’m thrilled to see what our open community will do with the latest in advanced vehicle technology.”

There are four Watson APIs that Olli will use: Speech to Text, Natural Language Classifier, Entity Extraction and Text to Speech, and among the functions that the vehicle will be able to perform as a result include analyzing high volumes of transportation data from 30+ sensors on the vehicle.

“Passengers will be able to interact conversationally with Olli while traveling from point A to point B,” IBM says, “discussing topics about how the vehicle works, where they are going, and why Olli is making specific driving decisions.” Other features will be asking Olli for suggestions of restaurants to eat or local landmarks. But not driving itself.

“IBM is excited to work with Local Motors to infuse IBM Watson IoT cognitive computing capabilities into Olli, exploring the art of what’s possible in a world of self-driving vehicles and providing a unique, personalized experience for every passenger while helping to revolutionize the future of transportation for years to come,” said Harriet Green, General Manager, IBM Watson Internet of Things, Commerce & Education, in a statement.

“Improving the sustainability of local transportation networks as part of a wider goal to create more vibrant, livable, sustainable cities within Miami-Dade County, and improve the quality of life for residents is our top priority,” said Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, in a statement. “We must do more to improve transit and mobility in our community and the deployment of autonomous vehicles is a big step in the right direction.”

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