The City of Boston is moving forward with plans to study driverless cars, launching a program with a startup spun out of MIT to begin testing on public roads by the end of the year.
City Hall is working with Cambridge-based nuTonomy Inc. to put a self-driving car through its paces on the streets of the Raymond L. Flynn Marine Park in South Boston. The park offers about three miles of roadways in a contained space that is nonetheless open to the public and will require the car to navigate amid pedestrians, cars, bikes, and the MBTA’s Silver Line.
“It’s a similar road network to what you would see in a lot of places, though there are no traffic lights and the volume of traffic is a little bit less,” said Kris Carter, who cochairs the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics. “But there are still really interesting challenges.”
The program will require a licensed driver to sit in the driver’s seat to take control of the vehicle as needed. The car must also be clearly labeled as a testing vehicle.
The testing area could expand to other public roadways depending on how things go in the park area, Carter said. NuTonomy, which is already testing self-driving cars overseas, may also add more vehicles to the program over time.
Despite its status as a hotbed for robotics, Boston had been at risk of falling behind with the potentially transformative technology as other cities launched testing programs. For example, Pittsburgh grabbed a leadership role in the sector this year when it allowed the ride-hailing service Uber to begin dispatching self-driving cars to pick up riders.
But in September, Boston announced that it planned to begin testing the vehicles soon through a partnership with the Switzerland-based World Economic Forum. About a month later, amid questions about their legality under state law, Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Governor Charlie Baker each issued executive orders to clear the way for the cars to get on the road.
NuTonomy will send its car — with a driver in total control — to the industrial park’s streets in the “next few days” to begin collecting data required to navigate the roadways, according to chief executive Karl Iagnemma.
However, the vehicle will not begin driving on its own until nuTonomy completes an application and receives formal approval from the state. Carter said that would probably occur before the end of 2016, but Jacquelyn Goddard, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Transportation, said she could not project how long the application process will take.
In nuTonomy, the city has found a partner with local ties and experience in the field to put robot-driven rubber to the road. The company, founded in 2013, develops the software needed to pilot cars, outfitting them with sensors and computers to collect data.
NuTonomy began testing its software on public roads in Singapore earlier this year. It has also tested on a closed course in Michigan, but the Boston experiment will mark its first on public roads in the United States.
Iagnemma said the new scenery will help the company advance its technology.
“Every company — nuTonomy and every other company working in this space — will be required to adapt their technology either a little or a lot depending on what part of the world they’re driving in,” he said.
The company has offered the public rides through an Uber-like service in Singapore. That kind of service isn’t in the works in Boston, at least in the short term. “This is just an initial step for data collection and testing,” Iagnemma said.
The city is fielding calls from other companies — including manufacturers and transportation providers — that may also want to test here, Carter said, though he declined to name them or say whether any further announcements are imminent.
The city will not pay nuTonomy, or vice versa, as part of the testing program. “This is sort of a public-private partnership in its purest form and we both have a shared interest in learning something,” Carter said.