Boston heading down road of driverless cars

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BOSTON — As Boston embarks on a collaboration with an international non-profit to put autonomous vehicles on city streets, Mayor Marty Walsh said he still has some questions about the endeavor – and its legality is questionable.

“It’s so early in the process. We still have a long way to go before this is fully vetted,” Walsh told reporters Wednesday when asked why he would pursue self-driving cars in a city with such notoriously bad human drivers.

The World Economic Forum, a business-government group based in Switzerland, sought applications in April from cities “interested in developing a Smart transportation plan” that includes preparations for the advent of “autonomous and connected vehicles.”

Xanthi Doubara, who is serving as project manager on the program for the group, said Boston was selected out of 10 applicants because of its innovations in transportation – with Hubway bicycle sharing; Bridj high-end bus service; and Zipcar automotive sharing having established roots in the city – as well as the cluster of tech companies and academia and commitment from City Hall.

“The level of commitment was just really high,” Doubara told the News Service. According to the city, there is no “formal signed agreement” with the World Economic Forum.

The legality of operating driverless vehicles in Massachusetts is questionable.

Doubara said she does not know whether autonomous vehicles are legal in Massachusetts. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that in 2011 Nevada became the first state to authorize the use of autonomous vehicles, and Massachusetts has not yet done so. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation did not provide a response to a News Service question about the legality of autonomous vehicles.

Speaking to reporters after a Massachusetts Organization for Addiction Recovery event on Boston Common, Walsh declined to say when self-driving cars might start appearing on local roads.

“I don’t want to put a date on it because if it doesn’t happen they’ll be blaming me,” Walsh said. He said, “We’re doing some pilot testing and things like that. I don’t know when it will be across the country.”

Wednesday’s announcement raises the prospect that roadways laid out in the age of equestrian-based transportation might be traversed by computer-directed vehicles.

Doubara, who is an employee of Boston Consulting Group working on the Forum’s initiative fulltime, said Boston is not more complicated for testing autonomous vehicles than other cities, and she believes there is a good chance autonomous vehicles could start driving on Boston streets “as soon as this year.”

“We think that the testing environment that Boston offers is not more complicated than in other cities,” Doubara said.

Often crowded with bicyclists, pedestrians, delivery trucks and drivers with a penchant for rule-bending and breaking, Boston streets are notoriously dangerous. The insurance company Allstate recently ranked Boston last in its survey of the cities with the safest drivers.

“My joke was we’re going to need a separate algorithm for Boston drivers because predicting how a Boston driver is going to react is a complicated thing, even for a human,” Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said Wednesday on Boston Herald Radio.

Doubara said she is still in discussions with Boston about where to conduct the testing and said the approach would be to begin in an area of limited complexity and then potentially branch out. She pointed to Singapore as an example where an office park has been designated for initial testing.

Pollack said self-driving cars are inevitable, raising questions for government about how to regulate them and promote safety rather than whether to allow them.

“I think that self-driving cars are coming. So I don’t think that the issue for us is whether they’re coming or not,” Pollack said. She said, “Our job is to make sure it’s going to be safe, and also that we set out clear rules for the industry.”

According to City Hall, shared autonomous vehicles could take roughly two thirds of cars off the road, reduce crashes caused by human error – potentially reducing road fatalities by as much as 90 percent – and reduce vehicle emissions by 2 percent to 4 percent if the self-driving cars were electric vehicles.

“It’s a wave of the future – cars that don’t have drivers in them. We’re talking about 60 to 70 percent of the cars in Boston could be these cars somewhere down the road,” Walsh said. Asked if he thought self-driving cars would be the future of transit, Walsh said, “A lot of folks in my administration, in the transportation sector, think it is. But a lot of people have a lot of questions like myself. So we’ll see exactly how it works. I know the federal government is really encouraged by looking at autonomous vehicles.”

The mayor said the U.S. Department of Transportation had a $50 million grant available to cities that appeared geared toward incorporating autonomous vehicles.

A press release from City Hall said working with the Forum’s “knowledge partner” Boston Consulting Group, the city would “develop a framework for the testing of autonomous vehicles on city streets” as part of a year-long venture as lead partner for the City Challenge.

The World Economic Forum’s Board of Trustees includes Yo-Yo Ma, the internationally acclaimed local cellist, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Rafael Reif, as well as International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde, Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan and Al Gore, the former vice president.

Other parts of the world are farther down the road experimenting with autonomous vehicles.

Pittsburgh has taken experimentation to a new level, partnering with the ride-hailing transportation company Uber for self-driving Uber rides – with a human driver and an engineer sitting in the front seats and occasionally intervening, according to a Reuters report.

The May 7 death of Joshua Brown, whose Tesla car crashed into a tractor trailer in autopilot mode, raised concerns about risks inherent to the technology. The Florida crash was deemed the first self-driving car fatality in press coverage.

Harsh winter weather adds to the challenges for Massachusetts motorists, along with a host of other dangers not unique to the Bay State. Drunk driving continues, although it is a crime, and authorities have been flummoxed searching for a test to prove someone was driving while high on marijuana. Lawmakers also are perennially asked to limit driver distractions, such as cell phone use, a policy that came close to passing the state Legislature this year.

Pollack said that increased safety is one of the potential benefits of autonomous automobiles, noting the tens of thousands of people killed in car crashes around the country annually. Doubara said autonomous vehicles will need to be held to a significantly higher safety standard than people who are allowed to get behind the wheel.

Asked what he would say to the first person injured by an autonomous vehicle, Walsh deflected.

“Let’s just get the first one on the road first and see what happens,” the mayor said. “I mean I think a lot of people get injured every single day with people behind the wheels.”

Pollack said autonomous vehicles would not suddenly predominate, saying instead technology will steadily advance within vehicles. Electronic stability control has been a standard feature on new cars since 2012, and automatic emergency braking and lane keeping support – which includes some automated steering, braking and wheel acceleration – are “increasingly offered as options,” according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.