Optimus Ride, co-founded by LIDS alum and professor Sertac Karaman (LIDS/MIT, PhD 2012), has a unique approach to autonomous vehicles. They only drive in areas it comprehensibly maps, or geofences. Self-driving vehicles can safely move through these areas at about 25 miles per hour with today’s technology. “It’s important to realize there are multiple approaches, and multiple markets, to self-driving,” says Optimus Ride CEO Ryan Chin (MIT MA ’00, SM ’04, PhD ’12). “There’s no monolithic George Jetson kind of self-driving vehicle. You have robot trucks, you have self-driving taxis, self-driving pizza delivery machines, and each of these will have different time frames of technological development and different markets.”
By partnering with developers, the Optimus team is currently focused on deploying its vehicles in communities with residential and commercial buildings, retirement communities, corporate and university campuses, airports, resorts, and smart cities. The founders estimate the combined value of transportation services in those markets to be over $600 billion.
Optimus Ride’s founders have worked across a wide array of departments, labs, and centers across MIT. The technical validation for the company began when Karaman participated in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Urban Challenge with a team including Huang in 2007. Both researchers had also worked in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory together. For the event, DARPA challenged 89 teams with creating a fully autonomous vehicle that could traverse a 60 mile course in under six hours. The vehicle from MIT was one of only six to complete the journey.
As members of the group combined their expertise on both self-driving technology and the way people move around communities, they realized they needed help developing business models around their unique approach to improving transportation. Jenny Larios Berlin was introduced to the founders in 2015 after earning joint degrees from the Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the Sloan School of Management. The team started Optimus Ride in August that year.
“The company is really a melting pot of ideas from all of these schools and departments,” Karaman says. “When we met each other, there was the technology angle, but we also realized there’s an important business angle, and there’s also an interesting urban planning/media arts and sciences angle around thinking of the system as a whole. So when we formed the company we thought, not just how can we build fully autonomous vehicles, but also how can we make transportation in general more affordable, sustainable, equitable, accessible, and so on.”
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