3D printing a car sounds pretty awesome, but it’s not half as cool as driving one.
Let me repeat: I drove a 3D printed car. It wasn’t for long, and it wasn’t far, but it was a singularly awesome experience.
The car, known as the Strati, is perhaps the world’s fully drivable, almost completely 3D printer-manufactured automobile. Local Motors used crowd-sourced design and a custom-built 3D printer to create the one-of-a-kind (for now) 3D printed car and assembled it over six days at the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) in Chicago, Illinois a few weeks ago.
The company brought the two-seater to New York on Tuesday and I took it for a tiny, yet memorable, test drive.
Clad in a black-and-white leather racing jacket, perfectly worn jeans, and with chiseled features that would look equally at home in a race car or box of Wheaties (at one point I accidentally called him “Steve Rogers” – look it up), Local Motors CEO Jay Rogers greets me with a wide grin and a firm handshake. Behind him is the car.
The all-gray Strati is somewhat larger than I expected. It sits low to the ground like a race car and features just two custom leather seats. On parts of the body, you can clearly see the printed layers, in others, the Strati has been milled to smooth perfection. The body feels, well, like plastic, but also extremely solid. It has race-car lines, but also a custom-built quality. Rogers tells me that there are 227 printed layers in the chassis and the only limit was the 3D printer. Eventually, Local Motors expects to use larger 3D printers to print even bigger cars (can you say “3D-printed SUV?).
I notice that the printing on the fender is vertical instead of horizontal. Rogers explains that Local Motors decided to print the fenders separately. This way, if they’re damaged, you don’t have to replace (read reprint) the entire chassis, he adds.
Rogers gestures toward the interior of the car and points out the red leather seats, which he says Local Motors built and upholstered and noted that the ultimate goal is to provide a sort of fly net or weave-style seating that can be snapped into place on a pre-printed base. As we’re looking at the interior, I notice two compartments in front of the passenger seat. They were, Rogers says, printed as spots for storage — just like a real car. Strike that. This is a real car.
I take note of the large Bridgestone Battlax wheels, which turn out to be motorcycle tires. Then we walk around the back and Rogers unsnaps a vinyl flap to reveal a small Renault Twizy Motor. It sits behind a much larger 120 pound battery.
When it’s time to get inside the Strati 3D printed car, Rogers guides me. “Right leg first and turn your knee to the right to get it under the steering wheel.” I seem unable to turn my leg that way, so I lift my right leg and point my knee sharply to the left to squeeze it under the small steering wheel and dash. Rogers smiles and says, “That’ll work.”
Even though this is a printed car, it doesn’t give the impression of a kit or even cheaply made automobile. The leather-clad steering wheel feels solid in my hands. There’s a tiny dash display for speed and nestled to the left and somewhat behind the steering wheel is a set of three buttons with the letters DNR. D is drive, N is neutral and R is reverse. I note blinker controls on the wheel column, but not a lot else.
There’s room enough for my legs, though I can’t fully stretch them out. The seat does not move back or forward. I can’t quite see it, but my right foot finds the brake and acceleration peddles.
“Put your foot on the brake,” says Rogers, sounding a lot like my first driving instructor. “Now press the D button and then put your foot on the acceleration peddle.” I start to do this, but hesitate. There is no sound. I mean, literally, nothing coming from the Strati engine. Is this car even on?
At first, I press so lightly that the car doesn’t even move. Then, with still no sound, the car starts gliding forward.
The Local Motors 3D printed car can travel up to 50 miles per hour, but early models like this one, which will go on sale sometime in the next 12 months, are set to feature factory-limited motors and batteries so they can’t travel more than roughly 25 miles per hour. This will make them neighborhood safe, which also means there’s no requirement for many of the safety features you come to expect in most modern cars. So no seatbelts (at least that I could find) and no air bags. Rogers tells me that Local Motors plans to work on making the cars street legal and if you buy one next year for roughly $18,000 and an upgrade becomes available, they’ll simply take back the fully recyclable chassis and print you a new, delimited, 3D printed car that can reach 50 miles per hour.
In my short ride I barely went above 5 miles per hour, but I still noticed the ultra-smooth ride and relatively tight steering (there’s no power steering). You’re also very low to the ground. I could imagine that this is what it might feel like to cruise around New York City in a race car.
For the delicate maneuver of driving the Strati 3D printed car back into the transport trailer, Rogers takes over. I sit in the passenger seat and we mount the ramp and roll inside. Even that maneuver felt smooth as butter and, to be honest, oddly thrilling.
As Rogers and his crew finish securing the car inside the trailer, a small crowd gathers. People can tell there’s something different and special about this car. Rogers smiles and patiently answers questions from passersby. I watch and wonder if he’ll give me one more ride and if I could possibly borrow that awesome jacket.