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New York’s first commercial self-driving vehicles coming to Brooklyn Navy Yard

March 20, 2019 Scott Enman
The cars will operate as a loop shuttle service connecting NYC Ferry passengers to the Cumberland Gate. Rendering courtesy of Optimus Ride

The first commercial self-driving vehicles in New York are coming to the Brooklyn Navy Yard this spring.

The cars, provided by Optimus Ride, a Boston-based self-driving vehicle technology company, will operate as a loop shuttle service connecting NYC Ferry passengers to the Cumberland Gate at the intersection of Flushing Avenue and Cumberland Street.

“The Navy Yard is a good entry point into the New York metropolitan market,” Optimus CEO and co-founder Dr. Ryan Chin told the Brooklyn Eagle. “We believe that there’s a very large demand for self-driving vehicles. The Navy Yard itself has some unique conditions that will allow us to operate. First it’s a geo-fenced area and the speed limit is very low, it’s 20 mph or less.

“It’s also a gated private industrial park, so the roads are controlled by the Navy Yard so you don’t need to go through the process you need to go through for public roads. This is a good way to deploy into New York and get this out quite quickly.”

Chin said his company would initially deploy a fleet of four vehicles, but he hopes to eventually add more. The cars will have an operator inside, and they will be able to carry four to six passengers.

The worker inside the cars will introduce the technology to users and also take over driving if necessary. “The plan for all of our deployments everywhere is that they all start initially with operators and then they will eventually move to remote operation,” Chin said.

David Ehrenberg, president and CEO of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation told the Eagle that Navy Yard tenants would be able to leave the car at any point along the route, but the general public would need to go directly to the ferry stop.

“The yard has always been a testing ground for new technology and for next generation companies,” Ehrenberg told the Eagle. “Obviously, this falls quite squarely in that.

“We look for small companies and new technologies that can — in the right environment and nurturing — grow into major employers in the city and we certainly feel that autonomous vehicle technology has the potential to do that.”

Optimus will also be partnering with CARMERA, a homegrown company at the New Lab in the Navy Yard that provides real-time 3D HD maps for autonomous vehicles.

Optimus’ self-driving vehicles. Photo courtesy of Optimus Ride
Optimus’ self-driving vehicles. Photo courtesy of Optimus Ride

The cars may be an innovative test of technology, but they will not likely expedite the commute time of many people within the Navy Yard. Google maps estimates that the roughly 0.2-mile walk from Dock 72 to the Cumberland Gate currently takes about five minutes. By vehicle, Google Maps estimates it will only take about two minutes.

But Chin said Optimus will be adding additional routes through the complex to help people get to other points. “There will be essentially on-demand route lists,” he said.

As for safety concerns, the cars will have four layers of safety, including laser scanners, cameras, the safety operator inside and workers watching remotely. Plus, they will be operating at less than 20 mph, which adheres to Vision Zero recommendations and the speed limit within the complex.

“If you remember with the Uber scenario in Tempe, [Arizona], they were going almost 40 mph and that will almost certainly kill anybody,” Chin said. “In our case we’re operating under a very low speed with generally conservative driving.

“We don’t expect any situation like that and by default we’re actually much safer because we’re adhering to Vision Zero environments and speeds.”

Optimus is able to operate easily within the Brooklyn Navy Yard largely due to the fact that it’s a private complex. New York has strict laws regarding operating autonomous vehicles on public roads. Those demonstrations must have a licensed driver behind the wheel in case of an emergency and they must take place under the direct supervision of New York state police.

The law permitting the demonstrations or tests of autonomous vehicles on public roads is set to expire April 1.

New York has held demonstrations of self-driving cars in the past, but never an actual commercial service like the one agreed to between Optimus and the Navy Yard.

“Self-driving vehicles are the next frontier in transportation, with the potential to vastly improve traffic safety on New York’s roadways,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in June 2017 after the first successful autonomous vehicle demonstration in New York.

“New York is a proven leader in innovation and cutting edge technology, and these first ever demonstrations are a major milestone toward making this new technology a reality and continuing to move New York forward.”

The NYC ferry stop, announced by Mayor Bill de Blasio at this year’s State of the City address, is expected to be in operation in May. It will be part of the Astoria line, which will also stop on Roosevelt Island, Long Island City, East 34th Street and Wall Street.

The new stop will be in front of the $380 million Dock 72 building, a 16-story structure that will open later this year and house a new WeWork facility. It will be one of the largest New York City commercial buildings to be built outside of Manhattan in decades.

Follow reporter Scott Enman on Twitter.

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