Business & Tech

First self-driving car hits the road in Boston

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The start of a new era in technology in Boston began inauspiciously enough.

A white compact hatchback, a Renault ZOE, pulled out from a loading dock Wednesday afternoon and zipped down an alley inside the Raymond L. Flynn Marine Park, turned effortlessly, and merged into traffic on Drydock Avenue. There was someone in the driver’s seat, but the car at times was steering itself, crisscrossing a path around the industrial park and blending in with buses, delivery trucks, and pedestrians going about their day.

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It was the first public trip by a self-driving car in Massachusetts, and it concluded — without incident — an hour later.

NuTonomy Inc., a Cambridge startup that is a leading developer of technology for autonomous vehicles, launched the pilot program on the industrial park’s 3 miles of roads, using a car guided by artificial intelligence software and fitted with cameras and other sensors, including a laser-based technology called LIDAR that detects nearby objects.

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Two engineers inside the car monitored the ride. One was in the driver’s seat, but it was unclear how often that engineer took control. The only obvious signs that something new was taking place were the gadgets affixed to the car’s exterior and the lettering declaring “autonomous vehicle” on the door.

In an e-mail, nuTonomy chief executive Karl Iagnemma said “all systems performed perfectly.”

“It was great to get on the road in our home state,” he said. “We look forward to logging many more miles in Boston.”

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The company, a startup using technology developed at MIT, is also testing its systems as part of a self-driving taxi project on some public roads in Singapore.

NuTonomy’s investors include the Cambridge venture firm Highland Capital Partners.

Wednesday’s test drive, though low-key, was a big step forward for Massachusetts, as public officials attempt to keep pace with a growing commercial push to bring self-driving cars to US roads.

NuTonomy’s car had already spawned some intrigue among people who work at the Innovation and Design Building, a redeveloped warehouse and office space that houses techies and new-economy workers, nestled among the city’s cruise-ship terminal and several gritty industrial lots.

Robby Bitting, marketing director for the MassChallenge startup program, said he discovered the test car’s storage spot recently after hearing that nuTonomy was making plans just downstairs from his office.

“I think it puts Boston in the right category. We want to be on the forefront of this thing,” Bitting said. “This area and this building have a reputation for cool things that people are curious about, so it’s a good fit.”

The Boston experiment is one small part of a suddenly breakneck global competition to develop self-driving vehicles, putting startups such as nuTonomy in a league with technology and automotive giants like Google, Ford, and General Motors.

On Wednesday, BMW said it plans to deploy 40 sedans with self-driving car technology for test drives later this year in the United States and Europe. This week in Las Vegas, Hyundai is giving rides in its autonomous Ioniq self-driving car to attendees of the CES computer electronics show.

Regulators are still grappling with the rapidly evolving field, attempting in many cases to safeguard the public while also supporting sought-after high-tech employers. Uber, which is already testing self-driving cars on the streets of Pittsburgh, said it will relocate a second experiment to Arizona after California officials shut down its December rollout in San Francisco for not having the necessary permits.

But don’t expect to see nuTonomy’s self-driving cars zipping through the Back Bay anytime soon.

Under an agreement with the city, nuTonomy has to complete 100 miles of test drives at the park in daytime and in good weather before progressing to more difficult nighttime and poor-weather tests.

After another 100 miles under those conditions, the company can request to expand its tests to outside the industrial park — again, first in daytime and in good weather — to the surrounding South Boston Waterfront.

NuTonomy said it has tested its cars at night and during light rain and snow at its other locations.

In its application, nuTonomy said its self-driving cars “are programmed to prevent any collision or other motion that would create a risk to human life or health.” The company plans to limit speeds to 25 miles per hour.

NuTonomy employees are behind the wheel during all test drives, tracking vehicle performance and ready to take control if needed. The company also said it encrypts all data transmitted to and from the car.

In its application to state officials, nuTonomy said it has been involved in one crash: In Singapore, a test car hit a truck while merging into another lane in “autonomous mode.” It said the only injury was a sprained wrist suffered by the “safety driver” in nuTonomy’s car.

Curt Woodward can be reached at curt.woodward@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @curtwoodward.
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