Boston Just Gave the OK to Citywide Tests of Self-Driving Cars

The company nuTonomy has the green light to go autonomous outside the Seaport.

A nuTonomy car parked outside the central branch of the Boston Public Library

Photo via Mayor’s Office

Make way for robots.

Boston has just given approval to the self-driving car company nuTonomy to begin testing autonomous vehicles all around the city, letting them branch out from the Seaport for the first time, according to an announcement Wednesday.

nuTonomy, a Cambridge-based company born out of MIT, has been conducting tests on the newer, more grid-like streets of the South Boston waterfront since November of 2016. This will mark its first attempt at navigating the busy, unpredictable, pedestrian and cyclist-jammed rest of the city.

“Continuing to test autonomous vehicles in a careful and methodical manner represents another step forward in helping us to achieve the vision for improved mobility that was established by residents during the Go Boston 2030 Transportation Plan public process,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh tells the Boston Herald. “If deployed thoughtfully, shared fleets of autonomous vehicles could offer the City of Boston the potential to improve safety on our streets, provide equitable connections to the MBTA, and offer a new source of mobility to all Boston residents.”

They won’t be just unleashing robotic cars on Boston neighborhoods, as researchers are still required to keep two human passengers in the vehicles at all times, ready to intervene if they glitch.

The decision follows a minor panic that ensued earlier this year when a driverless Uber struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona, prompting Boston to enact a brief hiatus on self-driving car tests while officials reviewed safety protocols. Testing resumed a week later.

The company celebrated the announcement this week, thanking officials for their willingness to turn the city into a giant lab for their products. It also acknowledged concerns about their robotic cars mingling with the city’s infamously aggressive driving public, touting what it says is a sterling safety record and pledging to conduct its tests in “a safe, responsible, and transparent manner.”

Boston drivers have a reputation.

Between frequent double parking, spontaneous lane changes, and the famous “Boston left,” they treat the rules of the road as mere suggestions. Drive a few blocks in the city, and you’ll quickly learn—through creative gestures and language—what others on the road think of your driving skills. Above all, in Boston, we’re always—always—in a hurry.

While the accuracy of these stereotypes is debatable, what’s certain is that Boston’s road network is one of the most challenging and complex in the United States.

For the past 18 months, nuTonomy’s AVs have been racking up miles in Boston’s Seaport District, sharing the road with Boston’s famous drivers, plenty of delivery trucks, and even a few errant seagulls. In close coordination with the City of Boston, we’ve executed a test plan that has seen our vehicles safely tackle increasingly complex driving conditions, in day and night, through rain, sleet and snow.