Business & Tech

Boston driverless car company will expand testing citywide

NuTonomy’s self-driving cars are about to roll out of the Seaport District and into the rest of Boston’s busy streets.
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File 2017
NuTonomy’s self-driving cars are about to roll out of the Seaport District and into the rest of Boston’s busy streets.

Self-driving cars are about to roll out of the Seaport District and onto roads throughout Greater Boston.

After nearly 18 months of testing the emerging technology along the South Boston Waterfront, nuTonomy Inc. received approval Wednesday from Boston officials to expand citywide. And on Thursday, the Baker administration will sign an agreement to allow testing in other communities, which include many of the suburbs that ring Boston.

Don’t expect driverless cars to soon be cruising everywhere. NuTonomy will test only five vehicles across all of Boston, and they will be introduced slowly to new neighborhoods. Also, it will be months before the state finalizes new rules for testing in other communities.

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Still, the week marks a major advancement for a technology that until now has been confined to one Boston neighborhood.

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“We all see the promise of autonomous vehicles to deliver benefits for our residents, as long as the technology and policy evolve in a way that supports it,” said Chris Osgood, the city of Boston’s chief of streets. “That sort of evolution can’t happen solely on the South Boston Waterfront.”

Experts believe autonomous vehicles can help limit traffic fatalities, most of which are caused by human error, and reshape urban transportation with fleets of robot taxis.

But the technology has a long way to go. In March, a woman was killed in Arizona after she was struck by a self-driving Uber vehicle, and skeptics worry both about the safety of the technology and whether it could make traffic in congested cities even worse.

In a field that has attracted titans of the technology and auto industries, from Google to General Motors, nuTonomy is a small startup without widespread name recognition. But it has led the way in its home city of Boston, as one of just two companies testing the technology.

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Now owned by global auto supplier Aptiv, nuTonomy first tested vehicles in Singapore before starting in the Seaport in early 2017. It later won city approval to give rides to a limited number of passengers through a partnership with the ride-hailing firm Lyft, though it no longer offers that service in Boston.

Now it will try to train its cars to navigate some of Boston’s notorious snarls.

“We will not start testing in Kenmore Square tomorrow after a Red Sox game gets out,” said nuTonomy president Karl Iagnemma. But, “autonomous vehicles are like human drivers in that they learn from experience. The more unique environment we can expose the system to, the better the system gets.”

Under city rules, a safety driver is required to sit behind the wheel of any test car and be ready to take control as necessary. That will remain the case with the expanded testing. NuTonomy has not had any safety problems since it began testing in Boston, officials said. Though a relatively small area with only a handful of main streets, the Seaport District is also among the city’s most congested neighborhoods.

NuTonomy and another startup, Optimus Ride, briefly halted their tests here after the Uber crash in Arizona, to allow city officials to review the companies’ safety records.

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Bryan Reimer, associate director of the New England University Transportation Center at MIT, said the city’s approach of testing driverless cars in a small area before expanding should be a model across the country. Other states have allowed more testing with less oversight.

“It really leaves Boston as a leader in this field, with a collaborative discussion and policy framework that is being organically developed,” he said. “Take baby steps, then take bigger steps, now take much larger steps.”

The steps will soon lead to beyond city limits. On Thursday, Boston, some of its suburban neighbors, and Worcester are expected to sign an agreement with the state’s transportation department, pledging to establish regionwide rules by the end of the year, according to the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a regional agency that helped organize the effort.

The agreement also requires the communities to establish testing areas within their borders, similar to how Boston testing began with the Seaport, according to a draft of the plan.

The proposal listed Arlington, Braintree, Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Chelsea, Malden, Medford, Melrose, Newton, Revere, Somerville, Weymouth, Winthrop, and Worcester as signatories. But state officials cautioned late Wednesday that the list could change.

Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.