The toaster-shaped shuttle slammed into a concrete barrier. Shards of glass sprayed through the air. Hub motors on the rear wheels detached from the underlying vehicle structure.
For Local Motors, this constituted a good start.
Where none existed before, the mobility company — perhaps most well-known for 3D printing vehicles — had developed testing protocols to vet the crashworthiness of its purpose-built Olli autonomous shuttle. That was a year and a half ago.
The company took lessons from that initial round of testing and iterated on its 3D printing methods, its frontal-crash structures and made design changes to the vehicle itself. In January, Local Motors ran a second gauntlet of crash tests more narrowly focused on components that showed substantial gains in how crash energy dissipates in a vehicle without traditional crumple zones.
Among the findings: Local Motors says its 3D printed frontal crush structure performed at an equivalent level to the crush structure found in a Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedan. Such results, reached with testing conducted by an independent engineering and testing firm, might not only shed light on the safety potential of 3D printed parts but also showcase the speed at which design changes can be iterated and implemented when relying on additive manufacturing.
"At first, I thought, 'God, what are these guys thinking,' " Bob De Kruyff, a longtime General Motors Co. engineer who now serves as vice president of engineering at Local Motors, tells Automotive News. "I just wasn't sure how you'd do that. But frankly, I've become a believer in 3D printing. I was a bit skeptical at first, and now I see the advantages of it, and what it's done for the vehicle."
The crash tests that have cemented his conversion are believed to be the first of their kind for autonomous shuttles.
Crash tests may be commonplace for conventional vehicles, but for Local Motors and its low-speed, bespoke autonomous vehicle, the testing regimen represented an unusual project for which there was no blueprint.