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City wants companies to stop self-driving car tests in Seaport

NuTonomy started driverless car tests in the Seaport last year.
NuTonomy started driverless car tests in the Seaport last year.(Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File)

Boston officials have asked local self-driving car companies to halt their ongoing testing in the Seaport District after an autonomous Uber vehicle in Arizona killed a pedestrian.

The companies, Optimus Ride and nuTonomy, are both based in Boston and have been testing their technology in the neighborhood under an agreement with local officials.

“As a precautionary measure, we have temporarily asked nuTonomy and Optimus Ride to pause their autonomous vehicle testing programs on public streets in Boston,” said Gina Fiandaca, commissioner of the Boston Transportation Department. “The Boston Transportation Department will be working with both companies to review their safety procedures to ensure each program can move forward.”

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NuTonomy declined to comment, and Optimus Ride did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

NuTonomy and Optimus are required to have two employees in the vehicle during all tests on public roads, one of whom is a “safety driver” to take over control of the car as needed. Since last year, nuTonomy has been offering a limited number of passengers rides around the neighborhood as part of a test with ride-hail company Lyft.

NuTonomy was first to test on Boston’s roads, starting in winter 2017. Optimus followed later that year.

Neither company has reported an accident or serious safety issue on Boston’s streets. In reports to the city, each has said that drivers take over in certain situations, such as when encountering unexpected construction sites or when traffic is directed by a police officer.

Uber suspended all of its self-driving testing Monday after what is believed to be the first fatal pedestrian crash involving the vehicles.

The testing has been going on for months in the Phoenix area, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto as automakers and technology companies compete to be the first with the technology.

Uber’s testing was halted after police in a Phoenix suburb said one of its self-driving vehicles struck and killed a pedestrian overnight Sunday. The vehicle was in autonomous mode with an operator behind the wheel when a woman walking outside of a crosswalk was hit, Tempe police Sgt. Ronald Elcock said.

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The woman, identified as Elaine Herzberg, 49, died at a hospital.

Uber chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi expressed condolences on his Twitter account and said the company is working with local law enforcement on the investigation.

The federal government has voluntary guidelines for companies that want to test autonomous vehicles, leaving much of the regulation up to states.

The US Department of Transportation is considering other voluntary guidelines that it says will help foster innovation. But Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao also has said technology and automobile companies need to allay public fears of self-driving vehicles, citing a poll showing that 78 percent of people fear riding in autonomous vehicles.


Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamtvaccaro.