Boston To Test Self-Driving Cars On The City's Streets

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The city of Boston will soon test self-driving cars in Boston. Pictured: Afternoon traffic on the Southeast Expressway. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The city of Boston will soon test self-driving cars in Boston. Pictured: Afternoon traffic on the Southeast Expressway. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Get ready, Boston. Self-driving cars are coming to the city's streets.

The city has partnered with the World Economic Forum to launch a yearlong program to test out autonomous vehicles, Mayor Marty Walsh announced Wednesday. The Boston Consulting Group will also work on the initiative.

On-street testing will begin by the end of the year, according to the city. Many of the program's other details, such as how many vehicles will be tested, haven't been solidified.

The idea is to prepare Boston for an autonomous vehicle future.

"We’re going to spend the next year working through a couple different scenarios of how self-driving vehicles could impact the urban environment," Kris Carter, the co-chair of the Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics, said in a phone interview.

"One of the things we’re really interested in exploring," Carter said, "is vehicles that could be fully electric to address some of the climate change goals that are laid out by the city, and then vehicles that might be in a share type model that would get at reducing the number of overall vehicles on the street, and supporting complementary modes — whether that’s walking, riding a bike or taking public transit."

The initiative will also support the city's Go Boston 2030 transportation planning effort, which aims to make the city's streets safer, more reliable and more accessible.

Gina Fiandaca, the city's transportation commissioner, said self-driving cars have the potential to reduce roadway crashes.

"Autonomous vehicles won’t speed on our roadways," Fiandaca said. "We know that they’re a more efficient mode of transportation in many ways, as [the] vehicles can travel safely in closer proximity to one another."

Much has been said about autonomous vehicles changing the future of transportation. But Boston has a host of traffic issues, and the effort to bring self-driving cars to the city represents an interesting challenge: The city's streets are narrow, heavily congested and filled with drivers who are ... rather creative, let's say, about the rules of the road. (Not to mention consistently ranked the worst in the country, according to one insurer's calculations.)

So how will people react to and interact with driverless cars on the roadways?

Bryan Reimer, the associate director of the New England Transportation Center at MIT, said it's crucial to study this because people will be sharing the roadways with autonomous vehicles — or AVs — for some time.

"If the automated vehicles are going to follow traffic law and the rest of us kind of don’t, well, the system is not going to flow in the way that it needs to and you’re going to see situations ... where you have minor rear-end conditions, and it’s an open question: Is it the AV’s fault because it didn’t go fast enough on green, or is it the following vehicle's fault, because they expected the AV to move like a regular driver?" said Reimer, whose research focuses on how people interact with autonomous vehicles.

Reimer said the human element is one major area where there's more work to be done before driverless cars can begin to get on the road.

Another area is regulation. Karl Iagnemma, the CEO of nuTonomy — a Cambridge-based startup that is currently testing self-driving cars in Singapore — said testing will help determine how the vehicles work in cities like Boston, and could help shape better policies.

"We spend a lot of our time focused on solving those technical problems, but if you've got a technical solution and you don’t have the regulatory freedom to operate as a business, you really don’t have much," Iagnemma said. "Having that regulatory in place will give companies like mine the confidence to move forward with investments in the city."

As part of the Boston program, the city will develop policy recommendations around self-driving cars. Fiandaca said the city will examine cyber security, privacy, equity and "workforce transition as we move into this uncharted territory of autonomous vehicles and how they fit into an existing environment that is heavily dependent on vehicles that are powered by human beings."

Carter, of the mayor's office, said Boston's conditions make the city an ideal testing ground to tackle these challenging issues.

"If the utopian vision of autonomous vehicles is going to land in cities around the world, we’d like to be a part of solving some of those problems here in Boston," Carter said.

To that end, the city plans to tap into the region's technology brainpower.

"With our start-ups and educational institutions, Boston is a leader in technology, robotics and innovation," Walsh said in a statement. "Together with our partners, we know the City of Boston is ready to lead the charge on this transformative technology."

Earlier this month, MIT announced it will create a $25 million research center for autonomous vehicles that will be funded by Toyota. The center will focus on developing systems that allow vehicles to navigate roadways safely without human input. The goal is to reduce traffic casualties — and potentially create accident-proof vehicles.

The city of Boston said it's still working out details of the autonomous vehicle pilot program, including how many vehicles it will test, and the vehicle manufacturers and other potential partners it will work with for the program. Carter said the pilot will likely include a "very small fleet" of autonomous vehicles.

This article was originally published on September 14, 2016.

This segment aired on September 15, 2016.


Zeninjor Enwemeka Senior Business Reporter
Zeninjor Enwemeka is a senior business reporter who covers business, tech and culture as part of WBUR's Bostonomix team, which focuses on the innovation economy.



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