NuTonomy, an autonomous vehicle software startup that’s been testing its technology in Singapore, announced that it had signed an agreement with officials in Boston to bring its self-driving cars to that city’s streets.
NuTonomy said it will begin testing its self-driving Renault Zoe electric vehicles in an industrial park in South Boston later this year. That means that while the cars will be operating in a public area, they’ll still be somewhat removed from normal vehicle and pedestrian traffic. This echoes nuTonomy’s tests in Singapore, where its self-driving cars operate in a 1.5-square-mile section called North 1 that’s been designated by the city-state’s Land Transport Authority as the testbed for self-driving cars.
In a statement, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh praised the agreement as one that will enable his city to join the ranks of those playing host to what many consider to be the future of transportation. “Boston is ready to lead the charge on self-driving vehicles, and I am committed to ensuring autonomous vehicles will benefit Boston’s residents,” Walsh said. “This is an exciting step forward, and together with our public and private partners, we will continue to lead the way in creating a safe, reliable and equitable mobility plan for Boston's residents.”
This represents a bit of a homecoming for nuTonomy, which was spun out from MIT in 2013 but has only been testing its self-driving cars overseas. “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,” nuTonomy CEO Karl Iagnemma said in a statement.
The company says it plans to have a dozen cars on the roads in Singapore by the end of the year. Iagnemma recently told the Associated Press that the company wants to have a full self-driving fleet in operation in Singapore by 2018.
During the Boston road tests, a nuTonomy engineer will ride in the cars to monitor its operations. But the vehicles will not be picking up or dropping off passengers, like the company is doing in Singapore through a partnership with the Southeast ride-hail startup Grab. To do that, nuTonomy would have to partner with a ride-hail service with a US presence, and its unclear whether there is such a service that isn’t already working on its own self-driving technology. As such, it’s hard to see how nuTonomy will be able to get regular Bostonians in its cars in the near future.
Still, the Boston road tests will provide nuTonomy’s software a chance to learn local signage and road markings while gaining a deeper understanding of pedestrian, cyclist, and driver behavior in a complex urban driving environment. The company says it will work with government officials to expand the testing area to other parts of the city in the near future.
Boston now joins a half-dozen other US cities to host self-driving vehicles on public streets. Google is testing its autonomous cars in Mountain View, Austin, and Kirkland, Washington. Uber is testing its cars in Pittsburgh, where it has been offering rides to members of the public since September. Both Google and Uber are testing vehicles on the roads in Arizona. And there are a handful of self-driving buses and shuttles operating in cities like Washington, DC and Santa Clara, California.