Optimus Ride launches autonomous shuttle service in New York City

Self-driving cars are coming to New York City, but don’t expect to see them tootling along Fifth Avenue just yet.

Optimus Ride, an autonomous-car startup based in Boston, is bringing its technology to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a 300-acre industrial park with more than 400 manufacturing businesses and 10,000 people working on-site, according to the company. The facility hasn’t built ships for the Navy in decades, however.

A fleet of six small shuttle vehicles will operate within the confines of the yard, offering a more controlled environment than the chaotic public streets outside the yard’s gates. Each vehicle will also have a human safety driver and software operator on board at all times in case of problems, according to an Optimus Ride press release.

Optimus Ride expects its vehicles to transport 500 passengers per day, and more than 16,000 passengers per month. On weekdays, the shuttle service will run on a continuous loop between 7 a.m. and 10:30 p.m., connecting a riverside dock with the Cumberland Gate street entrance. The shuttle will run between the dock and Building 77 on weekends during the same time period.

Optimus Ride says it’s the first self-driving vehicle program to launch in New York state. Officials gave the nod to trials on public roads in 2017, prompting Audi and GM Cruise to apply for a permit, but strict safety stipulations appear to have so far deterred both companies from embarking on testing in the state.

Optimus Ride’s efforts are similar to those in other parts of the country where autonomous vehicles are being deployed on private roads along fixed routes inside specific spaces such as university campuses or gated retirement communities.

In fact, Optimus Ride is also launching autonomous vehicles on the grounds of an 80-acre retirement community in Fairfield, California. At both the New York and California sites, the company will offer workers and residents access to driverless rides between facilities within their respective locations.

Optimus Ride CEO and co-founder Ryan Chin said the New York shuttle service, as well as previous deployments of Optimus Ride vehicles, shows that autonomous vehicles can work today in “structured environments.” He also noted that such service will expose more people to autonomous driving, helping to boost public acceptance of the technology. As companies push harder to develop autonomous-driving tech, recent polls have shown public opinion to be ambivalent at best.

Autonomous shuttle services like those run by Optimus Ride are expected to become increasingly common as autonomous-vehicle companies continue to hone their technology in a bid to improve its reliability and safety across a range of driving conditions. Larger companies such as Waymo, GM Cruise, and Ford have similar plans for self-driving cars. All three are working on their own systems, with an eye on the launch of ridesharing and delivery services on public roads.

Optimus Ride was founded in 2015 by a team based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Updated on August 6, 2019: Added details on the launch of the service.

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