The SmartCart. Image: Local Motors

Researchers Are Testing Electric, 3D-Printed, Uber-Like, Self-Driving SmartCarts

University of Michigan researchers tackle problems that come after self-driving.

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Jul 9 2015, 7:50pm

The SmartCart. Image: Local Motors

University of Michigan researchers today announced that they're developing a 3D-printed, self-driving "SmartCart" that users will be able to hail with their phone.

It's like Uber, but with low-speed, autonomous cars, says Edwin Olson, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science who leads the project. He added that the goal is to understand the challenges of a transportation-on-demand system built around autonomous cars.

To begin the project, University of Michigan researchers today received a 3D-printed vehicle from Local Motors, the same company that claimed the first (mostly) 3D-printed car, though that title is up for debate since various car parts have been printed previously.

Google, of course, is testing self-driving cars on real roads in California, which are already getting into car accidents, but Olson is less concerned with how to make an autonomous car than he is with how to deploy this technology once it becomes a reality.

"There are lot of problems about how to deploy these vehicles and it would be a shame for us to have to wait for autonomous technology to be finished first," Olson told Motherboard.

"We don't know the answers, but there's no better way than to just give it a go."

Testing will take place in University of Michigan's Mcity, a 32-acre mock city designed to test self-driving cars and other technologies, which will also allow the SmartCart to "cheat" on the autonomous part.

"If at the end of the day painting a blue line down the road saves us several months of development time, we'll paint a blue line down the road," Olson said. "That's something we can do on a campus college that you couldn't do on the national roadway infrastructure."

This shortcut will allow Olson and his team to start tackling other, equally important questions about self-driving cars, like how to safely pull over and pick up a passenger and how to balance supply and demand across an entire fleet.

"Part of the issue is that we don't know what the right vehicle should look like," Olson said. "Should it be a two-seater or a three-seater? Do we rip out the back and make it storage or do we allow more passengers? Where should the sensors go? Should people be facing backwards if there are four of them so they're in a conversation mode, or is that going to be scary as hell?"

Olson said that if they could reshape a car out Play-Doh every time they wanted to try a new design they would, but 3D printing is the next best thing.

The vehicle's powertrain is derived from a traditional golf cart, but the rest of the vehicle was made from scratch with the help of Local Motors specifically for this project.

The body is 3D printed using a plastic similar to Lego bricks reinforced with fiber to make it stronger, and if the researches decide they need a new dashboard, bracket to hold a sensor, or other widgets, Local Motors can print a new component within hours.

For now, the project will get new parts delivered from one of Local Motors' "micro-factories," room-sized 3D printers developed in conjunction with Oak Ridge National Laboratory. However, Olson said that Local Motors plans to build another one of these printers in Detroit, and he's confident it will be up and running soon, allowing his team to iterate even faster.

The University of Michigan will receive a second vehicle later this year or early next year, and the pilot project is funded for one year through the Mobility Transformation Center.

"We're going to experiment with the shape of the car, the sensor mounting on the car and the configuration of seating," Olson said. "We don't know the answers, but there's no better way than to just give it a go."