Boston Partners With Local Startup To Test Self-Driving Cars On City Roads

One of nuTonomy's autonomous vehicles in front of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square. (Courtesy city of Boston)
One of nuTonomy's autonomous vehicles in front of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square. (Courtesy city of Boston)

Self-driving cars are expected to hit Boston's streets by the end of the year.

The city announced Monday that it is partnering with Cambridge-based startup nuTonomy to test self-driving cars. The company plans to conduct testing in the Raymond L. Flynn Marine Park in the Seaport District.

"We’re just going to be driving around in the streets in this marine park over and over again to ensure that we can drive safely and reliably," nuTonomy CEO Karl Iagnemma said.

City officials say they want to see how autonomous vehicles can help improve road safety, accessibility and sustainability — all goals outlined in the city's long-term transportation planning initiative Go Boston 2030.

"We are really excited about the promise of reducing crashes on our roadways. Autonomous vehicles can certainly help with that," said Kris Carter, the co-chair of the mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics. "It also has the potential to reduce the number of vehicles on our roadway if done in a shared way, and reduce emissions if done in an electrified way."

Boston Transportation Commissioner Gina Fiandaca said the test will also help the city understand how to prepare to deal with self-driving cars.

"Autonomous vehicles really have the potential to transform human transportation," Fiandaca said. "What we’re hoping to learn from this pilot is exactly what we need to do on the municipal end in order to support autonomous vehicles and autonomous transportation — from local signage and pavement markings and understanding pedestrian behavior, cyclists behavior and how the municipal regulatory environments supports this innovation."

NuTonomy plans to test one vehicle — a self-driving Renault Zoe electric car — in the 191-acre industrial park, which houses a variety of tenants, including seafood processing and wholesaling facilities. The tests will allow the vehicle to learn local signage, road markings and other information about the roadways. Iagnemma said his company may also create some traffic conditions to test, by having cars driven by people in the test site along with the self-driving car.

The company must still complete an application with the state before testing can officially begin. That application process was outlined in an executive order issued last month by Gov. Charlie Baker, when the state took steps to create a framework for testing self-driving cars on roadways. Baker's order outlined a "Memorandum of Understanding" agreement that companies must enter into with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and affected municipalities or state agencies before testing can begin on roadways. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh also issued an executive order last month that outlined oversight for testing of autonomous vehicles in the city.

Under the memorandum of understanding agreement between MassDOT, the city of Boston and nuTonomy, the self-driving vehicle must be inspected by the state and have a person inside during travel so they can take over if necessary.

The partnership between nuTonomy and the city is a first step in on-street testing around the city. City officials say they are in talks with other companies to do additional testing of self-driving cars.

NuTonomy has already been testing self-driving cars in Singapore, and is starting a pilot program there to provide ride-hailing services to people using the vehicles. That taxi-like service could potentially be a practical application for self driving cars here in Boston, according to Iagnemma. Delivery of goods is another potential application.

But for now, Iagnemma said his company is focused on testing out and learning from Boston's complex urban environment.

"Autonomous vehicles in the future are going to have to learn how to drive not just strictly by the book, but also drive how other road users drive and as we expect another car to drive so that they don't drive too much like a robot. That can actually potentially lead to trouble on the road," Iagnemma said.

He later added: "There’s nothing like being able to test in your backyard."

NuTonomy hopes to eventually expand testing to other parts of Boston. Currently the company is building out maps of the city ahead of testing.


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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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