Startup to Test Self-Driving Cars in Boston

Startup to Test Self-Driving Cars in Boston

NuTonomy is looking to improve its autonomous cars with experience in varying environments

By TIM HIGGINS Updated Nov. 21, 2016 12:24 a.m. ET

NuTonomy, the startup that beat Uber Technologies Inc. to public streets with robot taxis, will begin trying out autonomous vehicles in Boston by year’s end.

The company, financed in part by Ford Motor Co. Executive Chairman Bill Ford’s venture fund, announced on Monday a deal with the city of Boston and state of Massachusetts to test on public roads a Renault Zoe electric car with nuTonomy’s self-driving software.

The Cambridge, Mass., startup is racing to roll out an autonomous commercial fleet in Singapore in 2018, well ahead of the time frame announced by auto makers for bringing self-driving vehicles to market. BMW AG and Ford, for example, have targeted 2021.

“These tests in the City of Boston will enable our engineers to adapt our autonomous vehicle software to the weather and traffic challenges of this unique driving environment,” Karl Iagnemma, nuTonomy co-founder, said in a statement.

The tests, which initially will involve a single car, will be conducted in the Raymond L. Flynn Marine Park, an industrial area in the southern part of the city. Beyond exposing the self-driving system to foul weather, they will help the company sharpen its software’s ability to recognize signage and road markings and gain experience with the complexities of urban driving, including pedestrians and cyclists as well as human motorists.

NuTonomy, which aims to create a fully autonomous on-demand car service, began tests in Singapore last August. Autonomous vehicle trials by Alphabet Inc. and Uber, which began testing a fleet in Pittsburgh in September, have received more attention, but the startup has attracted fans in the automotive industry, and the Boston tests could elevate its profile.

Mr. Iagnemma and co-founder Emilio Frazzoli conceived nuTonomy’s software at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where they influenced the broader development of autonomous driving as a principal research scientist and professor, respectively. Sterling Anderson, who directs Tesla Motors Inc.’s semiautonomous Autopilot system, came out of Mr. Iagnemma’s MIT lab.

“The reason we’re able to move quickly is because we’ve made a lot of mistakes already, quite frankly. We’ve been in the trenches at MIT on the research side, and we knew what didn’t work and we had a pretty good sense of what would work,” Mr. Iagnemma told an audience last week at the KPMG Automotive Executive Forum held ahead of the L.A. Auto Show.

NuTonomy completed a $16 million Series A funding round in May led by Highland Capital Partners that included investments from Fontinalis Partners and Samsung Ventures. Fontinalis was founded by Mr. Ford, great-grandson of Henry Ford, who has advocated for self-driving technology.

Interest in automotive startups has soared since General Motors Co.’s $1 billion deal to acquire Cruise Automation earlier this year to jump start its self-driving efforts, followed by Uber’s acquisition of autonomous-truck startup Otto, which was co-founded by Anthony Levandowski, one of the brains behind Google’s self-driving cars.

Google’s program appears to be farthest along technically, having driven more than 2 million miles on public roadways. The company, however, hasn’t articulated its business strategy.

Like Google’s, nuTonomy’s system uses a mix of sensors, lasers and cameras to feed images and data to a computer designed to learn to navigate streets. Similar to a teenage motorist, such systems need to gather real-world experience to improve driving skills.

Auto makers and tech companies around the world aim to introduce fully self-driving cars in coming years, even while questions about performance and regulation remain unanswered. One of the challenges for companies developing self-driving cars has been performance in bad weather. Existing systems have had difficulty seeing in snow, for example.

Boston should give the nuTonomy program plenty of experience with snow, while Singapore already has provided it with experience driving in rain.

NuTonomy picked Singapore for the testing that began in August because of the city-state’s favorable regulatory and legal-liability environment, the company said last week.

NuTonomy, however, isn’t developing its software solely for Singapore. Mr. Iagnemma signaled the company was looking to run tests in other cities and said it would announce locations worldwide within months.

“Now, that doesn’t mean it will be in all cities around the world at the same time. There are a tier of markets that will see this technology first…It’s a global play,” he said.

That nuTonomy picked Boston as a test bed isn’t surprising, following the city’s announcement in September that it had partnered with the World Economic Forum to conduct a yearlong effort to create policy recommendations for autonomous cars and support testing.

“We are focused on the future of our city and how we safely move people around, while providing them with reliable mobility choices,” Mayor Martin Walsh said in a statement at the time.

Write to Tim Higgins at Tim.Higgins@WSJ.com



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