On Thursday, IBM announced that it was partnering with Local Motors to bring its Watson cognitive computing system to an autonomous vehicle known as Olli. The vehicle was shown off at a new Local Motors facility in National Harbor, Maryland, where it transported Local Motors CEO John B. Rogers and the vehicle’s designer Edgar Sarmiento.

Olli, which looks like a blocky miniature bus, can transport up to 12 passengers. The official name of the Watson integration is IBM Watson Internet of Things (IoT) for Automotive, but it isn’t actually powering the self-driving capabilities. Instead, Watson will “improve the passenger experience and allow natural interaction with the vehicle,” according to a press release.

Watson will be the technology that enables passengers to communicate with Olli while traveling. For example, passengers can ask questions such as “Olli, can you take me downtown?” to start heading in that direction. They can also ask questions about vehicle functionality, where they are going, or for recommendations for restaurants. The goal is to make it more interactive for passengers when they are riding with Olli.

SEE: IBM Watson: The inside story of how the Jeopardy-winning supercomputer was born, and what it wants to do next (TechRepublic)

The launch of Olli marks the first time a vehicle has used IBM Watson IoT. Specifically, it uses four specific Watson APIs: Speech to Text, Natural Language Classifier, Entity Extraction, and Text to Speech. Using Watson, the car will be able to analyze the transportation data that it collects from more than 30 embedded sensors. Sensors will be added and adjusted as needed while Olli is further developed.

“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,” Rogers said. “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.”

As of Thursday, Olli will be used on public roads locally in Washington DC, moving to Miami and Las Vegas later in 2016. According to the press release, Miami-Dade County is officially exploring a potential pilot program where it uses a fleet of autonomous vehicles to transport people around the city. Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said that the initiative is part of a bigger project to make the city more livable and sustainable.

“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,” Gimenez said.

Olli was launched in tandem with the new Local Motors National Harbor facility in Maryland, where the company displays its 3D-printed vehicles and a large-scale 3D printer, along with public education programs for STEM subjects.

The original Olli will stay at the National Harbor facility over the summer, where the public will be able to interact with it. And another Olli is being built at the Local Motors’ headquarters near Phoenix, Arizona.

This isn’t the first time that IBM and Local Motors have worked together on a vehicle. Along with Intel, the pair worked on a connected rally car project last year.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. IBM and Local Motors have put IBM Watson IoT technology in an autonomous vehicle known as Olli, marking the first time IBM Watson has been integrated into a vehicle.
  2. Watson will not drive the car, but rather, it will answer questions for passengers and allow them to ask Olli questions while in transit.
  3. This announcement marks an interesting point for Watson, and could position the cognitive computing platform as a sort of on-board chauffeur for other autonomous vehicles.