This Small Bus is a 'Big Fish' for the Future of Commuting

Rogers's Local Motors is working on something completely new in autonomous driving.

Local Motors

Jay Rogers says he’s not a … car guy, but that’s not exactly true: his profile on a keynote speakers website rifles off a list of vintage cars he’s owned and notes that his grandfather, George M. Hendee, owned the iconic Indian Motorcycle Co. in the first half of the last century, when the internal combustion engine and leather upholstery made personal mobility society’s most reliable indicator of status, wealth, and/or sex appeal.

Rogers says he’s not interested in all that. (Maybe ignore the ‘71 Mercedes 280SL in his garage and the fact that his first production vehicle, the Rally Fighter resembles a mid-2000s Mustang GT with a lift kit.) To Rogers, cars have always been just a big gadget, something to disassemble and put back together.

His claims that he’s not a car guy (despite the fact that he’s absolutely a car guy) and his love of gadgets might explain his flagship project: A little bus that looks more like a tram you’d find in a theme park or puttering along in the background of a LEGO movie. It’s all electric, most of the body is 3D-printed, and it uses self-driving technology powered by IBM’s Watson A.I.

If you’ve been watching tech news at any point in the last year, you already know what we’re talking about. It notably popped up at the L.A. Auto Show this past November, where Rogers shared his vision during a keynote. It’s been on every blog that involves technology. It’s called Olli.

Olli still has a long way to go before it becomes a household name, but Rogers, who thinks and talks in rapid-fire bursts, tells me about a hard deadline to get the vehicle into widespread production by June of this year.

“Every hour of every day is focused on that very short period of time to get Olli into higher volume production,” he says of the date four months from now. When we spoke early this year, Rogers was bustling around San Francisco in between investor meetings. It sounded like Rogers walked several blocks during our call.

Passengers ride Olli in Washington D.C.

Local Motors

“Finding and hooking a big fish like this, like the Olli, is exciting,” he says. “It’s the vindication of what we worked toward. We’re watching people come along and say, ‘Wow, a cognitive self-driving shuttle? That’s a great idea.’ We’re seeing Mercedes and we’re seeing Lucid Motors and we’re seeing even Tesla talking about this segment where Olli is.”

Right now, the little buses are being tested at the EUREF Campus in Berlin, a private business park that has modeled itself as a kind of small-scale utopian community running on renewable energy while testing futuristic technology. The EUREF Campus is isolated by train tracks on three sides, accessible by a tree-lined cobblestone street bordered by concrete walls covered in Berlin’s signature street art.

Olli’s a good fit for the campus, where it shuttles tech workers up and down the campuses quarter-mile main road past the former Gasometer Schöenberg plant, a hulking local industrial landmark. Local Motors envisions Olli as a flexible, catch-all solution to urban transport, whether it’s solving the last-mile program from subways and traditional buses to shuttling students across a college campus or industrial park like EUREF. The program’s website,, is a slick PR pitch that takes viewers through a short tour of the vehicle narrated by “Olli,” who speaks in a bright, British-accented female voice. It describes Olli as “more than a vehicle,” rather, an “ecosystem” in which you can study, socialize, or play Pokemon Go in (Olli’s words were “catch a Zubat”).

It’s an interesting juxtaposition to Rogers, who very much seems like more of a Rally Fighter kind of guy. He claims he doesn’t race cars on the weekend, but he still cuts his hair in a more expensive version of the military’s standard high and tight and talks at a machine-gun pace — clearly, but intensely, as if explaining a plan of attack or a complicated play in basketball.

In promotional photos, he looks completely at home surrounded by the hard edges and aerodynamic lines of fast cars. It costs $7,500 to $15,000 to book him for a speech, but you’re probably getting your money’s worth. His Twitter bio has nine hashtags. He describes his four sons as a “future Marine fire-team,” a callback to the nine years he spent deployed in Iraq, Japan, and Germany in between Princeton and Harvard Business school. His days as CEO are filled with the myriad tasks of bringing together mapping companies, robotics companies, salespeople and customers, and with “Olli, Olli, Olli, Olli, Olli, Olli, Olli, Olli.”

Local Motors and IBM representatives sit inside Olli. CEO Jay Rogers is on the right. 

Local Motors

The fear, he admits, is ending up like Shai Agassi, the founder of Better Place, an energy startup that raised $2 billion to start a battery swapping system for hybrid and electric cars “right at the time Tesla was trying to get off the ground.”

“It was a bold and expensive initiative, a big vision and it never came to fruition and it was therefore, not relevant,” he says. “Olli is so close to being relevant.”

But first Rogers has to land the fish. He loves metaphors and quotes, comparing his job to fishing first, then surfing, making a reference to movie Passengers one minute and then quoting Jay Leno, Wayne Gretzky, and Joni Mitchell in quick succession. The Olli project is a “black marlin” — a valuable prize fish — on the line, but it’s not in the boat yet. To get it on the boat, Rogers has to reel in customers. Olli is all over the EUREF Campus, but the true test will be once Rogers starts putting it out in greater numbers in June, and sees if anyone wants to buy them — conventions, business parks, cities.

Right now, there are only two fully-functioning Olli buses — one at EUREF in Berlin, and one at Olli’s headquarters in Arizona — but by June, Local Motors spokesperson Jacqueline Keidel said the company should be in full production, with a goal to produce 120 by the end of the year. Keidel said Local Motors has a “couple hundred” leads on buyers once Olli goes into production. The company has non-disclosure agreements with its prospective customers, so we won’t know where Olli will pop up until those deals are finalized.

As Rogers gets closer to June, when he’s frenetically obsessed with getting Olli out into the world, he starts to talk about surfing. Autonomous vehicle technology and self-driving cars are a massive wave in the transportation industry, and Rogers wants to be one of the first ones to surf it. He’s getting out in front of the competition by focusing on a project that’s a little different, a little simpler, than the “melee” of Tesla, GM, Ford, Waymo, Lucid Motors and dozens of other startups and motor companies trying to perfect a highway-ready self-driving personal car. Rogers wants to focus on the wave, not the other surfers. In this metaphor, I guess that makes Olli his board.

He’s trying a new design: a simple, multi-use vehicle not built to fill the traditional niche of a personal vehicle, marketed to cities, companies, and college campuses rather than to consumers directly.

A wide-angle shot of Olli's interior at Local Motors's Phoenix HQ. 

Local Motors

Of course, being first on what Rogers sees as a new wave of transportation means there’s no one else’s mistakes to learn from. The solution to that, for him, is constantly looking forward — like Wayne Gretzky said, “skating where the puck’s going to be.” That means doubling down on the company’s commitment to inexpensive, easy to produce vehicles (microfactories, or small production centers spread out over the country and the world, are at the core of Local Motors’ business model).

“I think cars are pretty cool technology. I think vehicles are pretty cool technology,” Rogers says. “[The future] might not be a four-wheel BMW 5 Series that you’re buying for 50,000 bucks and scraping together the money or for that matter, a six-seat Tesla, which you’re spending $100,000 on or $800 a month. I think it’s gonna look a lot different. I think the puck’s gonna be at a place where we’re still buying vehicles but certainly, they’re radically simple. They are provisioned locally at a really cool facility that is the focus of industrial tourism.”

We won’t know if Olli is going to work out, business wise, until June. By the end of March, Rogers hopes to be about halfway through the engineering support requests for Ollies — the customized orders from various customers who all want different configurations of the highly modular vehicle. There are three different air conditioning systems Rogers has to choose from.

The company’s manufacturing floors in Chandler, Arizona and other facilities in Las Vegas, Knoxville, National Harbor, and Berlin will have to be supervised, investors have to be cajoled and satisfied, and all the while Rogers will be thinking about the next step. It could be personalized air mobility — flying cars. It could be telepresence robots, allowing humans to commute without even needing a vehicle. Rogers has a hundred ideas in his brain, a long set of waves behind the one he’s riding, and what seems like an infinite supply of energy to keep paddling back out.