New York City’s first autonomous shuttle service opened this week.
For this young man, it was quite a momentous occasion.
I’ve been reading about autonomous vehicles for years. There’s been testing in many places around the country including California, Arizona, and Boston, but nothing in New York. I wanted to experience this for myself. In fact, I’ve been chomping at the bit to give it a try. Was I was going to wake up at 5 AM and give it a shot before work? Absolutely.
I live in New Jersey, so it took me nearly two hours to arrive at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Is it ironic I took a 2 hour trip that included walking over a highway, riding a commuter PATH Train, standing on a crowded A Train, and traveling on a B69 bus all for a 5 min trip between a ferry stop and the Navy Yard in an autonomous shuttle? Yes and No.
We will never know the answers to some of life’s questions.
Time To Ride
Optimus Ride has six electric vehicles that transport passengers on a 1.1 mile fixed route from New York Ferry dock on the East River to the entrance to the Navy Yard Many people work in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and the Ferry is very popular with tourists.
I found the ferry stop pickup/dropoff and waited for the shuttle. After a few minutes I saw the shuttle turn a corner and creep towards me. One of the two safety personnel called from the vehicle.
“Are you waiting for the Optimus Ride? Let me just turn around and you can hop in,” he said, as I watched his steering wheel turn all by itself. His associate in the passenger seat was monitoring the vehicle’s sensors with a laptop. Optimus Ride have said they would like to remove the two people in the vehicle by 2020. Time will tell.
Besides the safety personnel, I was the only passenger. The “driver” said I was the first passenger of the day and it was very popular earlier in the week as it was very rainy. I hopped in and was told to buckle up, and that the vehicle would move 10 miles an hour on the straightaway, then take a turn and speed up to 15 mph!
It’s surreal to travel in a car with no real driver. I’ve ridden in a semi-autonomous Tesla, but there’s something different about riding on a highway in a Kansas City suburb and riding in Brooklyn. I knew this was a testing phase on a private road but it felt special.
Perhaps it was the type of transportation. Waiting at a pickup point for a robot to drive you seemed more futuristic then just having a private vehicle with a self-driving feature. (Somewhat off topic, but are phones robots? We were having a discussion in the office about this.)
The drive was pretty smooth, and the vehicle was very cautious. We only encountered a few other cars or pedestrians and Optimus stopped appropriately for them each time. One issue that needs to be addressed is how other cars will interact with autonomous vehicles. After stopping for a stop sign, we started to go and stopped a second time as a car passed us moving from the opposite direction. Later, a vehicle from the Navy Yard stopped in the middle of the road and waited for us to cross.
Perhaps Optimus was being overly careful, which makes sense in this beta testing phase. However, its stop and go driving seemed confusing for other drivers.
The other side of the coin is human driver habits with autonomous vehicles. I understand wanting to give this unusual vehicle space, but normal driving will help with machine learning.
How would you change your driving if you encountered an autonomous vehicle?
The vehicle pulled off to the side and I was dropped off at the entrance to the Navy Yard. It was a short, slow, but very exciting trip. There are many tests to be done before this tech can be used on a busy, public, Brooklyn street. What’s that saying again? You have to crawl before you can walk, I mean, drive. Robot or not.