Boston-based Optimus Ride originally intended to use the 76-acre Paradise Valley Estates (PVE) nonprofit life plan community as a deployment site for its self-driving vehicles when the partnership was formed last year. However, those plans—which had just been nearing completion of phase 1 of deployment to provide point-to-point mobility services within the gated community—were put on hold when PVE introduced a campuswide stay-at-home policy on March 18 that effectively closed communal areas such as dining halls, the onsite café and the community center post office as precautionary measures against the coronavirus. At the same time, Optimus Ride paused passenger access at all of their sites, including PVE.
With the closure of the communal dining venues, the PVE dining team quickly launched a meal delivery program for the community’s 500-plus residents—all of them age 60 or older—using the PVE’s fleet of golf carts, which was almost immediately supplemented by the Optimus Ride vehicles.
“The major advantage is providing safe delivery of meals to a vulnerable population by not exposing them to the risks of congregating in the confined, enclosed spaces with other residents and staff members,” observes Optimus CEO Ryan Chin.
The self-driving Optimus Ride vehicles originally were intended to offer point-to-point mobility services within the Paradise Valley Estates gated community, but the advent of the COVID crisis and the subsequent shutdown of communal areas changed those plans at least temporarily.
The vehicles made their first dinner deliveries within 24 hour of the shutdown and have since transported 50 to 80 meals a day and also provided “last mile” delivery of mail packages from services like Amazon, UPS and DHL, reducing exposure risks from those sources in the process.
Optimus Ride had already been piloting a delivery service involving prescription drugs in the Boston area for over a year before it introduced its vehicles to PVE in November 2019 following a suggestion from a resident who had seen an article about its deployment at the Fairing Way Retirement Community in Boston.
Conversion to meal delivery required only minor modifications to the vehicle seats to accommodate bins that would allow for easy stacking and securing of packages. The company says it is also exploring new vehicle platforms that would enable three different modes: delivery-only, passenger-only and an adaptable version that can accommodate both functions.
Optimus Ride currently operates two vehicles at PVE that deliver dinners Monday through Saturday between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. The kitchen staff who normally operate the dining service prepare and pack the meals, which are then transferred to the Optimus Ride vehicles parked next to the kitchen area. A staff member rides with the meals and delivers them from the vehicle to the front door of each resident, ringing the doorbell and then walking away to ensure safe social distance while waiting for pickup. Once that’s done, the vehicle and staff member move to the next delivery point.
Currently, PVE is the only life plan community where Optimus Ride vehicles are used for meal delivery, but the company launched a similar service in Washington, D.C. on May 28 with real estate firm Brookfield Properties’ The Yards development to service area families struggling with food insecurity. It has also been exploring food delivery options at the 300-acre Brooklyn Navy Yard industrial park in New York City.
In fact, delivery, not just of meals but other goods, is seen as a growth area for the company, which has roots in robotics research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boston’s vibrant robotics ecosystem.
“We do see demand for logistics of all types—prepared meals, groceries, medical equipment, pharmaceuticals, etc.—growing significantly,” says Chin. “Optimus has been preparing and is ready to take on this new market vertical.”
The company says it plans to continue delivery services to PVE residents as long as needed. When campus dining halls and common areas can safely reopen, passenger access is expected to resume, with the eventual goal of expanding services to the entire campus.