June 21, 2018 11:15 AM, EDT

Boston OKs Citywide Tests of nuTonomy Self-Driving Cars

Sam Kang Li/Bloomberg News

Self-driving cars will soon be zipping across Boston after transportation officials granted one company permission to test their robotic cars outside the Seaport — with South Boston first up.

“The announcement is huge for the company,” said Matt Wansley, general counsel of nuTonomy. “We’re going from testing in 0.9 square miles in the Seaport to 49 square miles.”

Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s administration granted approval to nuTonomy, a Boston-based autonomous vehicle company, to begin testing their self-driving cars on all city roads, the city said yesterday. A starting date has yet to be announced, but Southie is first on the list in the coming months.

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“Continuing to test autonomous vehicles in a careful and methodical manner represents another step forward in helping us to achieve the vision for improved mobility that was established by residents during the Go Boston 2030 Transportation Plan public process,” Walsh said in a statement. “If deployed thoughtfully, shared fleets of autonomous vehicles could offer the city of Boston the potential to improve safety on our streets.”

The expansion comes months after an autonomous Uber hit and killed a woman in Arizona. Tesla also has had a number of incidents involving its Autopilot software, including a fatal crash in March. Gina Fiandaca, Boston’s transportation commissioner, said nuTonomy has shown the city its tests are conducted as safely as possible.

“NuTonomy has been good partners with the city. They’ve been very transparent,” she said. “Safety is our No. 1 priority.”

NuTonomy said it has not had any crashes since it began testing nearly a year and a half ago.

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“We’re testing in some pretty challenging areas. We’ve been able to do that without violating any traffic laws or any accidents,” said Wansley. “Our plan is to move out incrementally. That’s always been the nuTonomy approach — scale in a gradual, responsible way.”

Wansley said the company already has identified some challenging areas, including Boston drivers’ penchant for turning one-lane Broadway into a two-lane road. He said nuTonomy plans to add more autonomous vehicles to its five-car fleet over the summer, as well as additional hiring to keep pace with the testing.

Boston will continue to require nuTonomy to have two humans in the car, even during autonomous mode: one to monitor the car’s systems and another ready to take the wheel if necessary.

The City Council is also planning on holding a hearing on self-driving cars, Councilor Timothy McCarthy said.

Fiandaca said the city is hoping self-driving cars can help reduce vehicle and pedestrian deaths and increase transportation access.

Bryan Reimer, a researcher at MIT, said the expansion is going to push nuTonomy’s software, something that has to be done to improve autonomous vehicles.

“The complexity that we operate in to drive safely every day are immense. They are going to encounter things on the road they’ve never seen before,” Reimer said. “The only way to progress is to do it. There is no database within Boston or anywhere else in the world.”

Antonio Planas contributed to this report.

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