Autonomous vehicles are finally coming to the Big Apple. Optimus Ride, a Boston-based self-driving startup, announced plans to deploy an autonomous shuttle service in New York City in the second quarter of 2019. The company also plans on providing ride-hailing trips to residents of Paradise Valley retirement community in Northern California.
To be sure, robot cars won’t be jockeying for space in Times Square anytime soon. Optimus Ride’s autonomous shuttles will run in closed loops on private roads within the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a private, 300-acre World War II-era factory that’s in the midst of a high-tech reinvention. The shuttle service will be available to around 8,500 people who work at the Navy Yard’s various heavy and light manufacturing businesses as well as future passengers of New York City’s East River Ferry service, which is planning on opening a new dock at the Navy Yard in early 2019.
Optimus Ride wouldn’t say how many vehicles it would be deploying, nor provide any specs for the type of vehicle it uses. “The fleet of self-driving vehicles at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Paradise Valley estates will increase throughout the deployment period,” a spokesperson said in an email. “Optimus Ride utilizes Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEVs) that are designed for operating in environments of 25 mph. Optimus Ride is vehicle agnostic and can integrate our self-driving technologies into any vehicle type.”
Still, it’s a significant development, considering New York has largely been left out of the robot taxi boom in the last few years. Nearly two years ago, the New York State Legislature passed a bill authorizing demos and tests of autonomous vehicles on public roads. But since then, the streets of New York have been devoid of robot cars, as operators flocked to places with friendlier regulations (like Arizona) or ones that are more convenient to their headquarters (like California).
Optimus Ride, an MIT spinoff, is billing the Navy Yard deployment as the “first commercial self-driving vehicle deployment in the state of New York.” But there have been a handful of demonstrations of autonomous technology. Audi completed a six-mile demo around the state’s capital in June 2017 after receiving approval from the DMV. Later that year, Cadillac performed a “hands-free” drive from its headquarters in New York City to New Jersey.
Since then, New York has been a ghost town for AV testing. Part of the reason could be the state’s strict requirements, which include a state police escort at all times to be paid for by the testing company. In 2017, GM announced plans to test its self-driving vehicles in Lower Manhattan, but those plans have since dried up with little explanation as to why.
And New York’s elected officials have largely ignored the self-driving phenomenon, instead focusing their attention on the dire state of the city’s subway system. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio opposed the GM deployment at the time, and still remains skeptical of the technology.
“If this pilot abides by insurance and other non-traffic laws and remains confined to the Brooklyn Navy Yard — which is private — then it can operate,” Seth Stein, a spokesperson for the mayor, said in an email. “The Mayor has voiced his strong opposition to testing a new technology on our busy streets.” (A spokesperson for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo did not respond to a request for comment.)
The Navy Yard and Paradise Valley, an 80-acre retirement community located in Fairfield, California, would be Optimus Ride’s third and fourth public deployments, respectively. The company also plans to run an autonomous taxi service at Halley Rise, a $1.4 billion mixed-use development project in Reston, Virginia, starting later this year. Previously, Optimus Ride deployed a handful of robot cars near its home base in Boston’s Seaport district.
These deployments call to mind similar services that are available from startups like Voyage in retirement communities in California and Florida, or Drive.ai in Frisco, Texas: mostly low-speed autonomous vehicles in tightly controlled, geofenced areas with an operations team in constant communication with the cars. These vehicles — small, usually electric, with capacity for no more than a dozen people — have proliferated in cities around the world. Experts see them as a good entry point for autonomous vehicle technology, while regulators like keeping the vehicles contained in small, less populated areas.