Being interested in the future and all its technological promise and terror, I wanted to see the new self-driving cars in Brooklyn.
A tech company called Optimus Ride started offering the public rides in its autonomous vehicles Wednesday at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
I’m a stalwart of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, but new options can be fun. I decided to travel my path to the future chronologically, first using other new modes of getting around the city.
In mid-Manhattan, I picked up a Citi Bike (launched 2013) rather than wait for the slow bus, and pedaled east.
At the river, I dismounted and bought a ticket for the NYC Ferry (established 2017). There, I ran into the typical ferry downside, a 25-minute wait for the next boat. But there were positives, like the harbor views and Montauk beers for sale.
We coasted across the river and prepared to meet the new modernity at the Navy Yard.
So simple: a little white golf cart-looking contraption waited for ferry passengers. It said “SELF-DRIVING” in block text on the back. Unobtrusive cameras and sensors poked out the sides. Two people sat up front, a “safety driver” and a software operator.
“Buckle up,” said the software operator, Drew Anderson. The driver, a man with his hands cupped a few inches below the self-twirling wheel, said nothing.
Our first ride through the Navy Yard passed so quickly and seemingly smoothly that I almost forgot that a computer had taken my life into its digits.
“Safety’s our number one priority,” Anderson said soothingly, scanning the road through company-branded sunglasses.
The ride had taken just a few minutes and covered about a half-mile between the ferry landing and a main gate to the Navy Yard, but I was too consumed to have a sense of the clock, watching the machine stop carefully at stop signs and make right turns.
During two more rides, the car slowed for a turning bus and later veered a little to the left to avoid a pack of kids in orange camp shirts chaotically crowding the road. When a motorcycle darted out in front, the silent driver did in fact grab the wheel and make sure we didn’t hit it.
“We don’t wanna take any chances,” Anderson said.
A snafu occurred Tuesday in which a car that a spokeswoman said was in manual, non-autonomous mode rolled back slightly and had a “really minor tap” with another car. But onward.
The cars are operating only on Navy Yard grounds for now, but plenty of people are eager to try them out, like Sam Matamoros, an artist’s assistant.
“I been waiting for months,” he enthused after we shared a (safe) ride.
The 51-year-old already has cottoned on to the city ferries, which he says cut his commute from Queens to Brooklyn significantly. And regarding the cars, he’s glad to be “witnessing” a moment of great technological change.
That enthusiasm got me thinking: What comes after autonomous vehicles? Do they change New York for the better, providing comfortable connections, as the new bikes and ferries sometimes do? Do they bolster public transit?
Or if successful and embraced, do they lead to more traffic, more car ownership and use, less love of the subways, and any number of other unforeseen results?
Matamoros had an idea about that already.
“Once the cars get in the air, it’ll be a different story,” he said, noting the persistent utopian dream. “It’s just a matter of time.”
Mark Chiusano is a member of the Newsday editorial board.