You’ll soon be able to take a ride in a self-driving car around South Boston.
The Boston company testing driverless car technology said it will offer short rides to the public around the Seaport District and Fort Point neighborhood by the end of December through a partnership with ride-hailing company Lyft.
Details of the arrangement, including its official launch date, are still being worked out, but will be announced soon, said Karl Iagnemma, chief executive of nuTonomy Inc.
This would mark the first wide-scale passenger test for an automated vehicle in Massachusetts, and with it, Boston would join Pittsburgh, Phoenix, and Las Vegas in allowing the general public to catch a ride from a robot. As with most of those other tests, the Boston riders won’t be completely on their own: A nuTonomy employee must be behind the wheel, ready to take control, and a second employee will be in the front passenger seat monitoring operations.
City and state officials, who have overseen nuTonomy’s driverless car testing, approved of the company’s plan to offer passenger services in October. On Friday, Lyft declined to comment but confirmed the plan to launch the service by the end of the year.
Over the course of three weekends this fall, the company quietly conducted test drives with a select group of 41 users. The cars, small Renault hatchbacks equipped with nuTonomy software, drove from the company’s offices in the marine industrial park down Congress Street and across Fort Point Channel, and then doubled back along Summer Street. The joy rides set the stage for the broader passenger service to launch through Lyft soon.
“We’re giving people a chance to experience the technology,” Iagnemma said. “That helps us improve and develop a system people are going to want to use on a daily basis.”
When the Lyft program launches, users can only ride within nuTonomy’s limited test area of the Seaport District and Fort Point.
“If you’re picked up in the Seaport and going to Belmont, that won’t work,” Iagnemma said.
NuTonomy was acquired in October by international auto parts supplier Delphi, but remains a separate Boston-based business unit.
Iagnemma said nuTonomy is interested in working with ride-hailing services and also developing its own ride-hailing app. It used a company-built app during the tests in November, but the next round of rides will be summoned through Lyft’s service.
NuTonomy has been testing driverless cars without passengers in Boston since January. Under city and state rules, its vehicles must always have a safety driver behind the wheel and an engineer in the front seat. Moreover, under nuTonomy’s agreement with the city, passengers must agree to use a driverless car when they hail a Lyft Seaport Ride. .
“The city is excited to move to this next step in realizing the potential of autonomous vehicles to make our streets safer, and make transportation options more accessible,” said Kris Carter, the head of Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics.
In just a few short years, self-driving technology has burst out of the test lab onto American streets, with Uber, for example, operating vehicles in Pittsburgh and Phoenix. And in November, Waymo, the self-driving business in the Google empire, announced it would begin true driverless rides in the Phoenix area, and is recruiting volunteers for “everyday access” to its vehicles.
Videos of driverless car tests show what might otherwise seem like normal car rides — except the steering wheel and car move on their own, with a safety driver monitoring them. Some vehicles also have screens that show passengers how the car is using its technology to recognize road lanes, traffic lights, cross streets, and obstructions, such as stopped traffic. NuTonomy has similar screens in its vehicles.
The company’s limited passenger test this fall was valuable for gaining insight into how people feel about the technology, Iagnemma said. None of the 41 riders expressed concerns about the safety of the vehicle, although some cautioned that the nuTonomy car drove too cautiously. NuTonomy says its cars are programmed to travel within the posted speed limit of 25 miles per hour.
In a report on the test to the city, the company acknowledged its 41 test passengers had all volunteered to be driven around, and may be biased by “early adopter enthusiasm.”
Transportation planners and activists believe driverless cars could result in less congestion and safer roadways, although some caution this depends on how the technology is ultimately deployed. Rafael Mares, a vice president with the Conservation Law Foundation, worries that without policies encouraging drivers to take shared trips in driverless cars, their deployment would not cut down on traffic.
“I think the autonomous vehicle technology is advancing quickly, and how it’s applied is going to determine whether it’s positive for our transportation system or not,” he said.
Lyft and nuTonomy first announced a partnership earlier this year.
Companies like Lyft and its larger competitor, Uber, see the technology as a key part of their futures, using their ride-hailing tech to offer driverless taxi services around cities. By eliminating the driver from the equation, the argument goes, the cost of their services would eventually drop considerably.
Uber got a big head start last year when it launched driverless rides for passengers in Pittsburgh. Lyft has yet to formally launch any similar services, but the company has shown keen interest in the technology, striking partnerships with startups like nuTonomy, major auto manufacturers like Ford, and tech giants like Google’s sister company Waymo in recent months.
For nuTonomy, Boston will mark the second market — and continent — where it has offered passenger rides. It began carting passengers in a limited taxi service around Singapore last year, beating Uber’s Pittsburgh launch by a matter of weeks. It now has a partnership with a major ride-hailing firm in Asia to arrange those rides.
Another Boston-based driverless car company, Optimus Ride, has said it plans to soon move passengers around Union Point, a 1,400-acre development on the South Shore.Adam Vaccaro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.