New York City

Strapping into Brooklyn’s new self-driving shuttles

Optimus Ride, a self-driving shuttle service, is rolling out in the Brooklyn Navy Yard today.

Optimus Ride's self-driving car.

Optimus Ride's self-driving car. Annie McDonough

The autonomous vehicle revolution will be slow and heavily supervised. But that’s just the way Optimus Ride – a self-driving shuttle service rolling out in the Brooklyn Navy Yard today – wants it, at least for now. The company, founded by graduates and researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, launched a shuttle service using six electric, self-driving cars within the boundaries of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a 300-acre private industrial space that includes the New Lab tech hub. Service is confined to a 1.1-mile stretch from the Navy Yard entrance to the New York City ferry dock, and is intended to shuttle employees at the Navy Yard, free of charge. Optimus Ride has deployed other controlled AV services across the country, focusing on small, campus-type areas where the technology can repeat the same course many times, absorbing new information each time around.

Sertac Karaman, co-founder and president of Optimus Ride, explained all of this on Tuesday during a ride-along in one of the self-driving shuttles, which stayed between 10 and 15 mph, stopping for other vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists and making smooth turns. 

It’s possible the ride felt so smooth because two safety drivers – one whose hands hovered over the wheel and another who monitored sensors on a laptop screen – were on standby in case something went wrong. Karaman added that the company is hiring locally for those positions. Nothing did go wrong, making the two trips (from the Navy Yard entrance to the dock and back) pleasant and uneventful.

Autonomous vehicle testing has been legal in New York since 2017 – with a number of requirements, like approval from the state Department of Motor Vehicles and getting a police escort. Optimus Ride avoided those requirements because the Navy Yard is privately operated. Karaman agreed with recent reports that widespread adoption of the technology is further away than previously anticipated. Still, he thinks Optimus Ride’s highly controlled and limited service will show lawmakers that autonomous vehicles can be viable transportation solutions. “This deployment may look very small, but I think it really puts New York City on the map in terms of this technology being built and these kind of services being provided,” Karaman said, adding that even if the technology was perfected, people would need time to acclimate. “Our vision is that eventually the legal processes will be there to allow us to go into public roads.”

For the rest of today's tech news, head over to First Read Tech.