Autonomous shuttle startup Optimus Ride and motorsport vehicle manufacturer Polaris are teaming up to develop a new line of vehicles that will be low-speed, electric and self-driving.
These low-speed vehicles (LSV) will be equipped with Optimus Ride’s full stack of sensors and software to enable ‘fully autonomous’ driving without a safety driver behind the wheel – although the vehicles will also be remotely monitored by a team of engineers who can to do. offer suggestions to the vehicle if something goes wrong.
The vehicles, which can accommodate six people, will be deployed as a last-mile transportation service in residential communities, corporate and academic campuses and other ‘localized environments’, as both a fixed-route shuttle and a more dynamic, point-to-point ride. -hailing service.
The LSVs are produced under the brand name GEM, which stands for Global Electric Motorcars. Minnesota-based Polaris owns GEM, which it acquired in 2011, and is also an investor in Optimus Ride. The startup, which originally grew out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is currently using GEM shuttles to test its autonomous technology in Brooklyn, Boston, California, Washington, DC, and Northern Virginia.
The vehicles, which will roll out in the first half of 2023, will be built without traditional controls such as steering wheels and pedals, said Sean Harrington, CEO of Optimus Ride – although there will still be a way to manually move the vehicles. “We intend to have all six seats available to passengers,” said Harrington The edge, “Which means that where you currently have a driver’s seat would be another passenger seat.”
Harrington said the decision to co-develop vehicles with Polaris was about creating a better autonomous vehicle, as well as scaling up production to the point where the startup can begin deploying potentially thousands of vehicles.
“You just have a lot more flexibility by custom designing that vehicle with safety and performance built in from the ground up, rather than doing it a little at a time,” he said.
A dozen low-speed autonomous shuttles have sprung up across the country in recent years. Experts see them as a good entry point for consumers to AV technology, while regulators and city officials like to keep the vehicles in small, less populated areas. Optimus Ride claims it has completed “more than 75,000 rides” in the past two years.
Optimus Ride isn’t the only company taking a position in the low-speed autonomous shuttle space. Other companies, such as May Mobility, Voyage (now owned by Cruise) and Local Motors, have launched small pilot projects in cities over the years, though they have yet to scale up to a fully operational commercial service.
Other AV operators, such as Waymo, Zoox and Cruise, are also interested in starting fully autonomous ride-hail operations. Harrington says Optimus Ride can still be competitive with those companies, despite using vehicles with a top speed of just 25 mph.
“To be clear, this is not some kind of virtual rail AV system that gets you into an environment and if there is an obstacle, if something is in the way, that vehicle cannot go any further,” he said. “This is a vehicle in a fairly complex environment.” These limitations, Harrington said, position Optimus Ride to provide an autonomous transportation service “today, as opposed to many, many years from now.”
These types of small-scale businesses can also be extremely difficult to get right. Drive.ai almost went out of business before it was bought by Apple. And so is Navya, a major manufacturer of autonomous shuttles in France turning away from the shuttle business in favor of licensing its software to third party customers.
Polaris makes a variety of off-road vehicles, including the popular RZR series and flashy three-wheelers such as the Slingshot. It also owns Indian Motorcycle, which acquired it in 2011. The company recently announced a partnership with Zero Motorcycle to jointly develop electric vehicles, including ATVs and snowmobiles.
“I think this is the smart place for all of us to bet,” said Keith Simon, vice president and general manager of Polaris Commercial, “that’s why we’re doing this and we’re so excited about it.”