The ride of the future, happening today in Fairfax County

The Monday morning event in Reston, celebrating the start of a new development called Halley Rise, had the usual touches. White tent to keep everyone dry — check. Shovels to “break ground” on the project — check. Speeches by company and community officials to commemorate the milestone — check.

But off to the side of the tent was something not seen at previous groundbreakings here: an unconventional (okay, boxy) vehicle with white letters proclaiming “self-driving” below the rear windshield.

Click on this video for a quick trip in an Optimus Ride vehicle. (Courtesy, Optimus Ride)

Brookfield Properties engaged Optimus Ride, a self-driving vehicle technology company, to deploy autonomous cars as a key feature at Halley Rise, a $1.4 billion mixed-use district that will go up between Sunrise Valley Drive and the Dulles Toll Road and next to the Reston Town Center Metro Station that is slated to open in 2020.

When finished in 2026, Halley Rise is expected to have 1,500 residential units, 1.5 million square feet of office space, 250,000 square feet of retail space (including an urban-format Wegmans grocery store), 5 acres of public parks, and new public streets and infrastructure.

A rendering of Halley Rise at full build-out. (Courtesy, Brookfield Properties)

The groundbreaking on Monday marked the official beginning of phase 1 of Halley Rise, and included comments from Greg Meyer, executive vice president and head of the Washington region for Brookfield Properties, and Fairfax County Supervisor Catherine Hudgins (Hunter Mill District).

“Halley Rise exemplifies the very best of Brookfield’s placemaking philosophy, bringing with it walkable streets flanked by dynamic retail, diverse public spaces activated with events and culture,” Meyer said.

After the speeches, the fun began: rides in one of the three electric cars outfitted by Optimus Ride to drive themselves — though a “safety driver” was in front to monitor performance and step in to take over the driving if necessary.

Even as the project begins, the vehicles are ferrying passengers Monday through Friday on a set route from a parking lot on the site to an existing office building off Sunrise Valley Drive. In fact, they’ve already provided 15,000 rides on the development site.

The cars, which have two or three rows of seats, travel a maximum of 15 mph. To this point Optimus Ride has always had a safety driver.

Optimus Ride is based in Boston and develops self-driving algorithms, software, hardware and system integration for what is called “Mobility on Demand solutions” in “geofenced environments” such as planned communities and corporate or educational campuses. The company also has worked on projects at the Boston Seaport, the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Paradise Valley Estates in Fairfield, Calif.

Ryan Chin (left), CEO of Optimus Ride, presents Greg Meyer, executive vice president of Brookfield Properties, with a sign indicating the partnership of the two firms at Halley Rise. (Photo, FCEDA)

“We are excited to continue working with Brookfield to expand our autonomous systems throughout the Halley Rise development and to the new Reston Town Center Metro Station when it opens in 2020,” said Ryan Chin, the CEO and co-founder of Optimus Ride. “[Our] partnership with Brookfield Properties demonstrates the value self-driving systems can add to new developments around the country.”

Fairfax County prides itself on being a technology center, and the county hopes to see more innovations in transportation soon. The county and Dominion Energy are partnering on an autonomous electric shuttle pilot tentatively planned for the Merrifield area. No date has been announced for the pilot to begin.

The goal of the pilot is for the county and Dominion to learn about the various aspects of deploying autonomous vehicles as part of a large public transportation system. Fairfax County aims to be at the forefront of innovation by testing this smart technology for economic and environmental benefits, operational efficiencies and as a first- and last-mile travel option connecting people from Metrorail stations to employment, activity centers and residential communities.

In June, the demonstration project moved a step closer to implementation with the award of a grant from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (VDRPT) for the execution of the pilot. The Commonwealth Transportation Board approved the $250,000 grant for Fairfax County, making this pilot the first state-funded autonomous public transportation demonstration project in the state. Fairfax County will provide a $50,000 local match to the VDRPT grant.

Rides in the Optimus Ride vehicles were a big hit at the Halley Rise groundbreaking event. (Photo, FCEDA)

The county emphasized that safety will be key to the successful implementation of the pilot, and that the project is subject to safety reviews by the Virginia Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The shuttles will undergo extensive testing before passenger service can begin and a safety steward will be on board to monitor operations.

“We hear and read a lot about innovation and emerging technologies, and these projects are great examples of what the private and public sectors are working on now in Fairfax County,” said Victor Hoskins, president and CEO of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority. “This is the kind of thing that distinguishes the county as a community where innovative companies and people want to be.”

Also in the transportation arena, Fairfax County approved construction of a bus rapid transit service along Richmond Highway between the Huntington Metro Station and Fort Belvoir. The county also has begun a study of bus rapid transit service on Leesburg Pike between Tysons and Alexandria. And, last month, Gov. Ralph Northam announced a plan to replace diesel-powered school buses across the Commonwealth with battery-powered electric buses by 2030.