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Riding shotgun in the world's first 3-D printed car

An innovative auto company is redefining the joy ride.

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It's morning in Knoxville, Tennessee. As church trickles out, locals are jumping in their cars and driving to the bucolic grounds of Norris Dam State Park to spend Sunday in the great American outdoors. Highway 441 brings them into the park — past chestnut and oak trees turning shades of gold and crimson, past anglers in their rubber waders fly-fishing in the Clinch River — and over the towering centerpiece, the 1,860-foot Norris Dam in all its Art Deco glory. The dam was the pilot project of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a federal corporation founded during the Great Depression that lifted the ailing region out of poverty using its greatest resource, the river system, to generate power, jobs, and industry.

On this particular day, those pulling into the parking lot at the dam's base will see something unexpected: a tall, handsome man wearing a bowtie driving an unusual sports car. It has neither roof nor windows but does have a distinctly non-metallic exterior. The gentleman behind the wheel is John B. Rogers Jr., CEO of Local Motors, a technology company that designs, builds, and sells vehicles like no one has ever done before. His ride is the Strati, the world's first 3-D printed car. It's so quiet and low to the ground, you could say it was built for connecting with the Earth and nature itself, and you wouldn't be far from the truth.

An alumnus of Princeton and Harvard and the grandson of a former head of Indian Motorcycle Company (and PBS), Rogers may as well have been destined to lead an innovative and alternative company. It just took a few life experiences to get started. A family trip around the world on a sustainable boat that his father commissioned from a Vancouver builder taught him that meaningful travel is possible without much fuel. A stint in Beijing showed him how much nature, and especially sunlight, matter to quality of life. A military tour in Iraq opened his eyes to the social and environmental costs of dependence on oil.

3D printed car

And so in 2007, he co-founded Local Motors to, among other things, address our reliance on nonrenewable resources. "I want to able to get around while enjoying and protecting nature," he says, "and big car companies are not going to get that done quickly."

As the name suggests, Local Motors manufactures automobiles in small batches at microfactories in a wide range of somewhat unconventional locations: Knoxville, Las Vegas, National Harbor in Maryland, Chandler and Tempe in Arizona, and Berlin (auto-obsessed Germany's greenest town). For those familiar with this corner of Tennessee, the geography makes sense, as this part of Appalachia lies in one of the biggest research corridors in the United States. Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where the atomic bomb and some of the world's fastest supercomputers were built, is tucked away in the hills within sight of the factory.

The prime location allows Local Motors to benefit from the latest in material research from Oak Ridge's formidable 3-D printing lab and from Tennessee's university system. This all contributes to Roger's plan to make the safest, smartest, and most sustainable vehicles on the road, while keeping local talent close to home. "I want you to be able to buy a simple machine that services really easily and is made with only 50 parts," says Rogers. "One that gets the job done for what you want to do and is made by your brother, sister, or cousin who lives in town and gets a great salary."

3D printed car

Local Motors designs vehicles through an innovative, open-source process. The company submits a brief to their online community of international creatives, who then submit proposals for based on vehicle criteria like destination, climate, and psychographics. The winning designer receives a monetary reward, plus royalties on every model sold. Vehicles are then produced at a local microfactory. But this isn't the stuff of Detroit assembly lines: Local Motors vehicles are 3-D printed from recyclable carbon fiber, a substance stronger than steel. How long does this take? For the Strati, a mere 22 hours.

The process is nothing short of revolutionary compared to traditional automotive manufacturing. "An average highway car takes five to seven years and tens to hundreds of million of dollars in tooling costs to build," says Rogers. "It's hard to believe, but there are literally thousands of pieces that have to come together just for the body, or everything under the outer layer. That's why companies have to make so many cars and sell them in dealerships all over the world."

3D printed car

That's also why new cars almost never have the latest technology: Extremely expensive machinery and existing supply contracts often hinder the industry's ability to keep up with innovation. By printing cars using recyclable polymers, Local Motors reduces their environmental footprint in ways traditional car companies can't. No massive factories. No wasted materials. No cars rotting in the lot leaching dangerous chemicals into the Earth. Instead, Local Motors traffics in the latest in automotive tech: eco-friendly engines, self-driving hardware, and artificial intelligence systems.

The Strati, which is slated to hit the market in 2017, is a neighborhood electric vehicle with a top speed of 25 miles per hour, which means it's not the car owners will use to commute on long highway drives. But it is a car for getting around small towns and the outdoor recreation areas so many Americans live close to but never fully appreciate. Rogers is envisioning a future where it's not so unusual to road trip across the Norris Dam — or through the Shenandoah Valley or along Utah's Scenic Route 12, or into the Berkshires — in an incredibly cool car that belongs as much to the local community as it does to planet Earth. 

This content was originally published on Meridian.

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