Businesses, schools, government agencies or others eyeing small, driverless shuttles have a new opportunity to try out the technology during a largely free trial in Sacramento.

Sacramento and Phoenix have been selected as the location cities for the Olli Fleet Challenge, organized by San Francisco-based LM Industries, which makes small, autonomous electric vehicles. Groups wanting to explore the development of a shared autonomous shuttle fleet in both cities are encouraged to apply for the challenge. Applications are due by Nov. 5. The winning projects will be announced in mid-December.

The challenge requires program applicants to “tell us how you’re going to use them,” said Jay Rogers, co-founder and CEO of LM Industries. “It becomes a very robust conversation. Because now they’re not focused on the financing, and they’re focused on all of the good information about how they would use autonomy.” 

Rogers declined to say how many proposals had already been received.

“We have found some people with incredible use-cases, who maybe don’t have all of the grant-writing capability in the world, but they may know more about autonomy than other people have thought about,” Rogers said. “So we’re trying to lower the barrier of entry and get those people to just apply.”

The Olli vehicles are small, eight-passenger electric shuttles capable of traveling about 25 mph. The company will provide a fleet of, ideally, two to five shuttles per project, with a three-month deployment.

“The vehicles are going to be free,” said Rogers. “You will have to pay variable costs like movement or charging, or other things like that, which they would expect to do anyway.”

The project is viewed as an opportunity for organizations that use fleet vehicles to learn more about small autonomous shuttles — and possibly even become customers of LM Industries — and a chance for company officials to learn more about the various applications the shuttles can serve.

“We have found that there is a lot of talk, a lot of chatter, a cacophonous amount of talk about autonomy, and it seems to be stuck in an old conversation. Like, is it safe? What’s it going to cost? How will people use it?” Rogers reflected.

“In order to break through that, we felt that there needed to be an olive branch, from a company. And we are in a position to do it,” he added.

LM Industries officials have been in similar talks with other cities like Atlanta and Seattle about organizing a similar challenge competition. Sacramento and Phoenix were selected as the first cities, in part, because of their enthusiasm.

“It comes down to people,” Rogers said. “Mayor [Darrell] Steinberg in Sacramento, he came out to San Francisco. … He showed up at my office and said, 'Let’s do it,' and then he followed up and his staff followed up. They basically just made it happen and said, 'We want to run the fleet challenge.'"

Numerous communities across the country are exploring the use of small, autonomous shuttles, which are often viewed as the future of AV technology in the near term.

Autonomous shuttles have a cost advantage by eliminating the need for a driver, as well as having a market readiness.