NuTonomy Expands Its Boston Self-Driving Car Test Program

NuTonomy is taking its self-driving cars into more chaotic areas of Beantown.

byStephen Edelstein|
Self-Driving Tech photo

Boston has a reputation for having some of the worst drivers and most confusing streets of any city in the U.S. So what better place to truly test the mettle of self-driving cars?

Startup NuTonomy began testing prototype autonomous cars in Boston earlier this year. But so far, those tests have been limited to the relatively controlled environment of the city's Raymond L. Flynn Marine Park in Boston's Seaport area. NuTonomy now has permission to test cars in two additional areas that will offer more challenges, according to The Verge.

NuTonomy's self-driving cars will now head to other parts of the Seaport area, as well as Fort Point. There, they'll encounter more of the things human drivers deal with every day. That includes a more complex array of traffic signals, bridges, and multilane roads, plus a greater degree of encounters with pedestrians and other vehicles, which are piloted by what may be some of the worst drivers in America. An Allstate report found that Boston drivers are 168 percent more likely to have a crash than the average U.S. driver.

Developers need this real-world experience in order to determine how to write the software that could one day let autonomous cars navigate these scenarios on their own. So far, they've taught NuTonomy's self-driving cars to deal with seagulls. It's the kind of thing human drivers take for granted, but it requires significant computer development work for robot cars to master.

NuTonomy spun out of MIT in 2013, and is based in the Boston area. In addition to its local testing program, the company launched a limited self-driving taxi service in Singapore last year, beating some larger tech companies and automakers to the punch. NuTonomy's test fleet currently includes converted Renault Zoe and Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric cars.

The company reportedly doesn't plan to build its own cars, but rather combine its tech with a manufacturer on said carmaker's vehicles. That means it may follow the trend of partnering with an automaker to gain access to cars, as Waymo has done with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Uber has done with Volvo. General Motors owns Cruise Automation and has ties to Lyft, a trifecta that may eventually produce a fleet of autonomous taxis or ride-sharing vehicles.

NuTonomy will need to find a large supply of cars to enact its ultimate plan. It wants to fully commercialize its autonomous taxi service, putting "thousands" of self-driving taxis on the streets of Singapore by 2019, according to Recode.