NuTonomy Hopes Seaport Tests of Self-Driving Cars Will Yield Safer Streets

marine park sign
A sign marks the entrance of the Raymond L. Flynn Marine Park in Seaport, where nuTonomy says it will begin testing its self-driving cars before the end of 2016. Photo by Erin Wade/BU News Service

By Erin Wade
BU News Service

Most local motorists would tell you Boston is a tough place to learn how to drive, but a Cambridge technology firm will be using the city’s Seaport District to teach its autonomous driving software the rules of the road.

NuTonomy Inc., a firm founded by two Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineers has already been testing its system in Singapore, but now, through an agreement with city and state officials, it is set to start running its driverless cars on the streets of the Raymond L. Flynn Marine Park.

“Autonomous vehicles promise to dramatically reduce fatalities and injuries, and to bring freedom to people living with physical challenges that prevent them from driving,” Karl Iagnemma, CEO of nuTonomy, said in an email.

NuTonomy signed an agreement last month with the city of Boston allowing the company to begin testing electric cars outfitted with its self-driving software in the industrial park before the end of 2016, though a spokesperson for nuTonomy declined to provide a specific date.

While on the roads in the Seaport park, nuTonomy’s cars are required to have a human engineer at the wheel.

A nuTonomy news release says testing in the park, formerly known as the Marine Industrial Park, will allow the company’s software systems to “learn local signage and road markings while gaining a deeper understanding of pedestrian, cyclist and driver behavior and interaction across a complex urban driving environment.”

The industrial park, which Iagnemma said city officials chose as nuTonomy’s testing location, contains a smattering of parking lots, offices and docks, as well as Harpoon Brewery and the Black Falcon Cruise Terminal, the Massachusetts Port Authority’s main cruise terminal.

There are plenty of pedestrian crossings and stop signs, as well as several one-way streets and a single traffic rotary, but no traffic lights within the park’s limits. For those counting, there are 859 traffic signals in the rest of the city, according to Tracey Ganiatsos, a spokesperson for the Boston Transportation Department.

A visit to the park during Monday evening rush hour found little more than a trickle of cars exiting the multi-colored parking garage across the street from the Boston Design Center. No cyclists were to be seen in the chilly Drydock Avenue bike lanes.

But there is evidence that the traffic is not so benign. Tiny beads of glass are scattered on the ground in front of one of the bus stops near the park’s main entrance, a sign that there has likely been a car accident here recently.

This is something both nuTonomy and the city hope self-driving car technology will help to prevent.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics from February 2015 showed that driver error is the immediate reason for about 94 percent of car crashes. Boston officials hope that self-driving cars will lead to a drop in the number of crashes in the city.

“Utilizing autonomous vehicles to lower the car crashes upholds Boston’s commitment to Vision Zero, the city’s pledge to eliminate fatal and serious traffic crashes in the city by 2030,” a news release from the city of Boston said.

Though its Boston testing environment is somewhat limited, nuTonomy believes that tests in the industrial park will give it good data that will allow it to improve its systems. The company has plans to expand its testing range to other parts of the city in the future.

“The testing site in the Raymond Flynn Marine Park will enable our engineers to adapt our autonomous vehicle software to the weather and traffic challenges of this unique driving environment,” Iagnemma said.

The company has been conducting road tests of self-driving taxis in Singapore since August, and Iagnemma said that, so far, reactions from riders have been “very positive.”

“People begin the rides hesitant or excited, but seem to quickly accept the fact that the car drives like they or any other driver would, and the anxiety dissipates,” Iagnemma said. “We’ve also seen passengers humanize the car by giving it a name or comparing its driving to people they know.”

In a nuTonomy news release, Iagnemma said a self-driving taxi service is the company’s end goal.

“Testing our self-driving cars so near to nuTonomy’s home is the next step towards our ultimate goal: deployment of a safe, efficient, fully autonomous mobility-on-demand transportation service.”

Though nuTonomy is the first company to test self-driving cars on Boston’s streets, companies in other cities are also in the process of road testing driverless cars and taxi services.

Uber, a ride-hailing service, began testing a fleet of self-driving Ford Fusions in Pittsburgh earlier this year and recently had to remove a similar fleet of Volvo SUVs from the roads in San Francisco after officials raised regulatory concerns. Uber will be moving the testing it began in San Francisco to Arizona, at the invitation of Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey.

Iagnemma said Boston and Massachusetts officials approached nuTonomy about testing in the city and that city officials chose the industrial park as the company’s testing location.

Both the city and state governments have recently become much friendlier toward self-driving cars.

In mid-September, Mayor Martin Walsh announced a yearlong plan to begin pursuing self-driving car policies and testing in partnership with the World Economic Forum, followed by simultaneous executive orders from Walsh and Gov. Charlie Baker in late October mandating the creation of an on-street testing process for autonomous vehicles.

Iagnemma said nuTonomy plans to continue its testing in Singapore and to expand its testing to other locations throughout the Boston testing period, but he sees a future for his company here.

“We’re pleased with the initial testing program that city and state officials have launched, and we look forward to continuing to work with the City of Boston and DOT to expand the testing area for nuTonomy vehicles in the future,” he said.

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