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April 20, 2017 | Tom Ballard

Olli coming to downtown, will help showcase Knoxville’s innovation assets

Olli-KnoxBy Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

For the second time in about 48 hours, the region’s role as a transportation innovation hotspot was on display yesterday morning with a joint announcement from the City of Knoxville, Visit Knoxville, and Local Motors.

The start-up 3D printing company, which is putting the finishing touches on its new micro-factory in the Hardin Valley area, will have two of its unique Olli self-driving, fully electric vehicles available to transport people attending conventions here by late 2018. One is expected to make its official debut later this year during the second annual “Innov865 Week” set for September 18-22 when the local technology, innovation and entrepreneurial community celebrates all that is underway here.

Yesterday’s public event of Market Square followed Tuesday’s announcement that GRIDSMART, another local company, was deploying some of its cutting edge technology to establish a local test bed to better manage traffic flow. Both developments were highlighted again by Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero at last night’s “Innov865 Happy Hour” that also featured a fireside chat with Bill Malkes, GRIDSMART Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer.

“These are important building blocks,” the Mayor said yesterday morning as she mused about the rapid evolution of transportation technology. “Would we have been talking two years ago about a self-driving, electric, 3D-printed vehicle,” she asked?

Most of us would probably say “no,” but Local Motors clearly was. We have posted numerous articles about the company and Jay Rogers, its dynamic Founder and Chief Executive Officer, who now calls Knoxville home. You can find those articles here.

The Olli deployment comes through an arrangement with Visit Knoxville, the organization that promotes tourism and recruits conventions to Knoxville. For the organization’s President, it is another way to promote the region and its innovation culture.

“Knoxville has some of the smartest minds living here,” Kim Bumpas said as she talked about how the availability of Olli vehicles will not only enhance the visitor experience, but also help attract more conventions like “Destination Imagination.” More than 17,000 people descend on Knoxville each May for that event that is focused on teaching the creative process from imagination to innovation.

The Olli announcement underscores Knoxville as a innovative community.

“Olli . . . welcome to Knoxville,” Mayor Rogero said. “We live in a really cool city.”

Billed as “your friendly neighborhood mobility solution,” Olli is currently deployed in a test bed located in a business incubator park in Berlin, according Greg Haye, General Manager of the Local Motors Knoxville operation.

The vehicle drives itself using sensors and cameras with a capacity of 12 passengers. According to Local Motors officials, it can react faster than a human who is driving while also reducing carbon emissions and noise pollution thanks to its electric propulsion.

Mayor Rogero also emphasized that test beds like the two announced this week are important, not only for introducing new technology, but also evaluating those technologies from a safety perspective.

“This is not something we are blindly rushing into,” she said of the Olli deployment. “Our first concern is public safety.”

That said, the Mayor also proudly noted, “We are on the forefront.”

That’s a good thing for Innovation Valley that is home to other companies in the transportation technology sector as well as Oak Ridge National Laboratory that operates the U.S. Department of Energy’s largest transportation program and houses the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility. Those were attractions that brought Local Motors here as one example.

You can read the official news release from yesterday’s event here (Olli Announcement).

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