Navy Yard

Self-driving cars make bumpy debut at Navy Yard

Service opens to the public on Wednesday.

August 6, 2019 Scott Enman

New York’s first commercial self-driving vehicles are opening to the public on Wednesday at the Brooklyn Navy Yard — but there may still be some kinks to work out after a test ride on Tuesday resulted in a minor collision with another car.

The autonomous vehicle — one of six provided by Optimus Ride, a Boston-based company — began to reverse slowly after coming to a stop and hit a private car behind it. The driver, visibly annoyed, alerted the operator that his car had been struck. (The vehicle was not in autonomous mode when the contact happened, according to a spokesperson for Optimus. The safety driver had taken control of the vehicle.)

Small incidents like this are sometimes unavoidable especially in urban settings, according to Optimus CEO and co-founder Dr. Ryan Chin. He said his company has insurance and stressed that because the cars operate at such low speeds, there would never be fatalities.

“You might have a bump here or there,” Chin told the Brooklyn Eagle directly after the incident. “That’s part of city driving in fact. We have great insurance partners that cover all of that and everything that we do, we try and record and try and improve. The combination of the operator, along with the software, along with all of the data we’re gathering is there to improve our system.”

Although there were no injuries or serious damage done to either vehicle, Chin said they would review the data to see what happened.

A test drive of one of the autonomous vehicles. Eagle video by Scott Enman

The autonomous vehicles will transport both the general public and Navy Yard tenants between the ferry stop at Dock 72 and the Cumberland Gate at the intersection of Flushing Avenue and Cumberland Street.

The cars, which can fit four passengers in addition to two operators, will run on a continuous loop between 7 a.m. and 10:30 p.m. on weekdays. A round trip will take roughly eight minutes, and Chin expects there to be 16,000 to 20,000 rides per month.

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The operator at the wheel is there to 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 told the Eagle back in March.

The Brooklyn Navy Yard ferry stop is part of a route that goes to Astoria, Roosevelt Island, Long Island City, East 34th Street and Wall Street.

Optimus, a Boston-based self-driving vehicle technology company, is providing six cars in the Navy Yard.

The cars will have four layers of safety, including laser scanners, cameras, safety operators 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.

David Ehrenberg, president and CEO of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, said that the industrial park would act as a testing ground for people to learn about the technology and see what does — and does not — work.

“For this technology, there are public policy questions about autonomous vehicles,” Ehrenberg told the Eagle. “That’s obvious. We think we’re a really great environment to learn about the technology from the public sector side because it looks and feels like New York. It has all the complexities of the streets of New York.”

“Not just with Optimus, but with other Yard tenants, we’ve really tried to help companies get their technology out effectively onto the streets,” he added.

The self-driving cars are 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.

Chin hopes that the Brooklyn program will act as a stepping-stone toward eventually implementing the cars onto public streets. He said his company has experience working with policymakers, including the federal government, on autonomous vehicle guidelines.

“We’re well prepared to talk to them about how this can benefit [them] and what’s the right pathway for deploying them,” he said, adding: “You have to acclimate everyone to the technology. It’s very, very new. You have to demystify it.

“You have to show it to people and show that there are benefits of autonomous vehicles. The only way to do that is to have an actual program. You can’t have a TED talk about it and convince people.”

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  1. i live nearby like 5 blocks away , so i went there on Weds about noon and the security guards refused to let me in after i was asked where i was going and i told them i was there to try out the self driving car… i had a feeling this would be a short lived experiment but i guess even going on the first day i was still too late ?