Blackbird, Drive

How a team of engineers are plotting the future of mobility

Parked outside of the Airstream Village on 11th Street is a flat-black 1991 school bus called the Blackbird Bus—a mobile office and home that’s fit for a Zombie Apocalypse/Mad Max universe. Its interior and inhabitants, however, are far less menacing.

Known collectively as Blackbird, the quintet of creatives behind the bus formed at Syracuse University in New York where they ran a design consultancy. Due to a lack of investor money and talent, Blackbird turned their gaze west to Silicon Valley and embarked on a road trip that could change the way we view housing and human interaction.

But with housing costs in the region skyrocketing, they needed a different approach. “One thing led to another and we purchased a school bus, and then we took off,” co-founder Pat McGowan says.

“It’s so easy to connect on the Internet and talk to people across the planet, but there’s no bridge to physical reality,” McGowan says.

They bought the bus in New Mexico for $4,000, drove it to Syracuse and installed $15,000-worth of renovations, decking it out with wooden flooring, roll-up beds, a shower, closet, kitchenette, pantry, three 50-gallon drums of drinkable water and a work area that includes a laser cutter and 3-D printer. There’s even a Jacuzzi on the roof. And it all runs on biofuel.

The Blackbird Bus, or what co-founder Marcus Baron calls the “living machine,” gets 1,500 miles on 150 gallons of used vegetable oil, which they collect from restaurants. “They’d be confused when we’d ask for their old, used oil. ‘You want our garbage, what?’” McGowan says.

The only costs they had to worry about on their cross-country trip to Palo Alto was wireless Internet, insurance and food, the last of which was mitigated by their subsisting on Soylent, a powdered meal replacement similar to a protein shake. Save for a breakdown in the Mojave, it was smooth, financially-liberated sailing.

When they finally reached the tech promised land to shop their entrepreneurial endeavors, investors were more interested in the bus. That’s when it hit them: “Why don’t we build more of these and show people how to live like this?” McGowan says.

What was meant to be a cost-effective (and cramped) work and living space, the Blackbird Bus is now the prototype for their Nomad Mobility pods—tiny, self-driving “smart homes” that co-founder Michael Choi says could have a similar impact as smartphones.

The Nomads, which are currently in the design phase, will be built for one or two people and come equipped with wireless Internet, a shower, kitchenette, toilet, couch and a bed that drops from the ceiling. It will be fully electric with solar panels on the roof. And you won’t have to worry about rent or mortgage.

If they’re able to secure the funding, they plan to have a physical prototype by the end of 2016, with a fully autonomous Nomad available in 2020. Similar to Tesla’s Model S, they expect the first wave of Nomads will be pricey—projected at “well over $100,000,” Baron says—but the goal is a mass-market product available for $30,000 to $50,000.

More than a self-driving RV, what the Nomad represents is a new concept of community, one that can move, transform and adapt, with individuals having the freedom to experience new environments and grow.

It was that vision that brought Blackbird to Las Vegas in June. What was supposed to be a quick visit to study Tony Hsieh’s Airstream Village—a micro-community similar to the “Nomad cities” Blackbird envisions—turned into an indefinite stay.

As simple as it was for the Blackbird boys to find a like-minded community here in Las Vegas, they expect others to just as easily find their tribes with Nomad.

“It’s so easy to connect on the Internet and talk to people across the planet, but there’s no bridge to physical reality,” McGowan says.

Nomad wants to be that bridge—and the vehicle that drives you across it.

Vegas Seven