CEO Sean Harrington, 44, joined the company in late November from Verizon. He spoke with Shift Editor Leslie J. Allen about the company's strategy. Here are edited excerpts.
Q: Why limit deployments to geofenced environments?
A: The answer is really driven by where we think autonomous vehicles have the potential to deliver the most value and have the most impact in the near term, meaning the next three to five years. If you look at the types of trips that occur in the U.S., we know that almost half, about 45 percent, are 3 miles or less, and those trips are largely concentrated in and around areas of high-activity hubs, like communities or academic campuses, business campuses and where you have such concentration of trips.
Are there technological benefits?
If you're going to focus in on an area of high mobility need and you can constrain the environment where it's lower speed, less complexity and there are recurring short trips, it makes it possible to leverage the technology we have today and start delivering that value now, as opposed to trying to solve the unconstrained, autonomous vehicles going anywhere under all conditions, which we just know will take longer to solve.
Are you using a purpose-built vehicle or one that has been adapted?
The vehicles we use are manufactured by Polaris. It is the Gem e6 vehicle, which is all electric, and it is optimized for this type of service, where every passenger seat has its own door.
So it's easy for everybody to get in and out. It's very comfortable and it's fun. What we've done is taken that platform from Polaris and then we're equipping that base vehicle with what is required to operate autonomously. The vehicle is optimized for lower speed for these types of environments.
You were in telecom. What drew you to AVs?
The reason I got so excited about Optimus Ride in particular was that I saw this amazing combination of big vision, the opportunity to have massive impact, combined with a high degree of pragmatism.
Having spent time in and around the autonomous mobility space while at Verizon, leading the Smart Communities product development team there, I had become concerned that all of the focus on getting to full Level 5 autonomy, and only focusing on the robotaxi market, was going to take longer than people hoped. The approach that Optimus was taking was the way I thought this technology would evolve and penetrate the market most effectively.
Optimus just launched its first app. Why is that significant?
You have to give riders the exceptional experience they're expecting from start to finish, which means being able to open the app and see what vehicles are available to book, understand wait times and ultimately connect that experience to the vehicle experience. The Opti Ride app is our first step on that path to creating a very holistic rider experience that delights.