Riverside officials have cleared the way for a New Zealand maker of autonomous electric shuttles to move its international headquarters to the city.
The city council voted unanimously Tuesday, Nov. 28 to approve Ohmio‘s plan to move its home base to Riverside.
The company previously said it was interested in a 40,000-square-foot facility in the Hunter Park industrial area, although other options are being explored, according to Ohmio’s CEO Dean Zabrieszach.
“It has taken us almost three months to get back here after our last presentation, so we had to tell our real estate agents that we couldn’t make a commitment until a decision was made by the city tonight,” he said. “We have a commitment to tour eight properties in Riverside.”
The city plans to spend $1.5 million to lease or buy three Ohmio shuttles for testing on Riverside streets in a two-year pilot program, and another $1 million on drivers, insurance, maintenance, chargers and electricity for the vehicles.
The Riverside operation — including manufacturing, vehicle testing and research and development — could be up and running as early as 2024, company officials said.
“The three vehicles could be delivered to the city within six months,” Zabrieszach said. He stressed that each shuttle would have a human safety operator on board. That person will function primarily as a customer service representative, although they could take control of the vehicles in the event of an emergency.
Mayor Pro Tem Erin Edwards said autonomous vehicles “show great promise” in augmenting Riverside’s existing transit systems by plugging the “last mile” hole that sometimes exists between an existing transit option and a traveler’s final destination.
Ohmio said its facility would initially create up to 10 jobs, although that could grow to as many as 25 over the next three years. The jobs will range from engineers to technicians, and the count will likely increase, as experts estimate that every job created in advanced manufacturing spurs the creation of 2.5 jobs in support roles from other industry sectors.
Though the company hails from New Zealand it plans to hire locally.
Speaking before the council on Tuesday, Zabrieszach said all manufacturing for Riverside’s shuttles and shuttles to be used elsewhere will take place in Riverside.
The autonomous shuttles will sell for roughly $300,000, generating about $26,250 in sales tax per vehicle for Riverside, the city said.
Ohmio has shuttles operating in New Zealand, Australia, South Korea, Luxembourg and New York, and the company is expanding into the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Finland.
The Riverside facility will be close to the Southern California headquarters of the California Air Resources Board, which relocated to the city two years ago and is expected to spur additional vehicle-related research and development businesses.
Ohmio said it’s committed to collaborating with local universities, giving those schools an opportunity to include autonomous vehicle technology research, attract funding and help shape the future of the industry.
The company will benefit from its proximity to UC Riverside and the school’s Center for Environmental Research and Technology, as well as California Baptist University, La Sierra University and the Riverside Community College District.
Ohmio also plans to collaborate with the Riverside Transit Agency for maintenance of its shuttles.
Pros and cons
The Alliance for Innovation says the use of autonomous vehicles will result in fewer crashes or fender benders, as they’re programmed to maintain a safe and consistent distance between vehicles, which can also help reduce the number of stop-and-go waves that produce road congestion for no apparent reason.
But the technology has also raised concerns.
Researchers at UC Irvine’s Department of Computer Science set up a course on the UCLA campus to test the reactions of driverless cars to ordinary objects being placed on the side of the road.
Their study found that boxes, bicycles, trash cans and traffic cones can cause a driverless vehicle to halt abruptly, potentially creating a hazard and impacting the delivery of passengers and goods.