Business & Tech

Boston will begin testing self-driving cars by the end of this year

Boston’s streets will soon become a test track for self-driving cars, with officials announcing that they plan to launch a study of autonomous vehicles by the end of the year.

Cue the bad Boston driver jokes.

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The city said Wednesday that it was chosen by the World Economic Forum for a program focused on the future of urban transportation. Details on how the yearlong initiative will work are slim, but city officials said a key part of the partnership will be working with the Switzerland-based organization to develop policy recommendations for the fast-emerging technology. The Boston Consulting Group will also participate.

Boston’s experiment with autonomous vehicles is the latest sign that a technology that sounded like science fiction to many a few years ago is nearly ready for the world’s roadways. Cambridge-based developer nuTonomy is operating self-driving taxis in Singapore. In Pittsburgh, the ride-for-hire service Uber on Wednesday rolled out a fleet of autonomous Ford Fusions to begin ferrying passengers, with human drivers on board just in case.

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And tech giants like Google and Apple, carmakers like Ford and General Motors, and tech-transportation hybrids like Uber and electric carmaker Tesla are deeply invested in driverless technology.

Boston officials on Wednesday declined to reveal which technology companies or manufacturers they will work with, how many cars could be expected on the roads, or where they may be tested. Kris Carter, cochair of the city’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, said that information will be available in the coming months.

Amid the global shift toward autonomous vehicles, Carter said the partnership could give Boston a head start on mastering the technology as it prepares for its own future transportation goals.

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“What better way to start than by doing it now, so that 10, 15 years from now, we’re in a space where we have fewer crashes on our streets and more space for pedestrians, bicycles, and transit, and we’ve lowered our greenhouse gas emissions?” he said.

Proponents of the technology say it could save thousands of lives per year by reducing human-caused traffic accidents. It could also transform the economy and culture of the planet, if millions of people subscribe to automated ride-sharing services instead of buying cars.

But it could also mean lower demand for cars, and for services that cater to car owners, including service stations and repair shops. And driverless cars have faced recent scrutiny after a high-profile fatal accident when the driver of a Tesla car in Florida who was using its autopilot function hit a tractor trailer.

The underlying technology is well advanced. Already, many cars have “semiautonomous” systems that can automatically hit the brakes to avoid a collision or keep the vehicle centered in its lane on a highway. But these are relatively simple tasks compared with driving through the traffic-choked streets of Boston without a human at the controls.

“The highway part is the easy part,” said Frank Gillett, a vice president and technology analyst at Forrester Research.

Carter said it is too soon to say whether Boston will work with Uber or Lyft as part of the program. He said the city may work with a variety of companies, ranging from manufacturers to software developers to the so-called transportation network companies.

“We’re really interested in talking with anybody in the mobility space,” Carter said.

Adrian Durbin, a spokesman for Lyft, said in an e-mail that the company was part of a group that met with Mayor Martin J. Walsh to talk about the program over the summer “and will continue to participate moving forward.” He declined to further comment.

Boston officials said they have not yet determined whether there will be costs associated with the initiative.

“The city is still in the planning process for on-street testing, so we can’t speak to any potential costs until the planning is finalized,” said Audrey Coulter, a Walsh spokeswoman.

Policy planning will be a central part of the program.

That work will be done in conjunction with the Go Boston 2030 project, an initiative to map out the future of transportation in Boston, and the city will likely have policy recommendations to share by next summer, Carter said.

“Sometimes the best ways to develop policy is to actually test something to inform that policy,” he said. “We need some of that testing to benchmark the kinds of things that we’re looking for.”

Karl Iagnemma, the CEO of nuTonomy, a developer of autonomous car software, said cities must brace for the next generation of driving now to establish regulations before it comes to them.

“Where the regulatory groundwork has not been laid, companies are not going to wait,” he said.

Speaking with reporters on Wednesday, Walsh seemed to agree, saying that driverless cars are “a bit away,” but that city officials “don’t want to be behind the curve.”

The mayor, however, didn’t seem sold that the technology will prove as transformational as some predict.

“I’m not even sure I know what I want to see happen here. I just can’t imagine a day in which people aren’t driving themselves. I just can’t,” he said.

Legal frameworks for autonomous vehicle testing have only been established in eight states so far, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Massachusetts is not one of them (nor is Pennsylvania, where Uber is conducting its experiment).

The city of Boston said several questions must be answered before the cars can hit the road, including the controversial matter of whether a human should be in the vehicle.

“Do you need a driver in the seat?” Carter said. “Do you need to let people know around the vehicle whether this is an autonomous vehicle or not?”

Determining how closely autonomous cars should be allowed to travel to other cars is another safety issue under consideration, said Gina Fiandaca, commissioner of the city’s transportation department.

State officials have previously looked into establishing the former military space in Devens as a testing ground for driverless cars.

Iagnemma said Boston is a good place to test the technology specifically because it is not very easy to navigate, and because of the notorious temperament of some of its drivers.

“The way we improve our technologies is to put them in a difficult scenario,” he said.

Hiawatha Bray of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com
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