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Boston Is Putting Driverless Cars Through an Age-Friendly Road Test

Older adults and people with disabilities are among those recruited for a futuristic ride

Self-Driving Car

Photo courtesy nuTonomy

Boston's on-street autonomous vehicle tests are being conducted by nuTonomy and Optimus Ride. Although the vehicles drive themselves, a company representative remains in the driver’s seat as a precaution. (That person has taken control when the humans operating nearby vehicles were driving erratically.) A researcher sits in the front seat and monitors the vehicle’s performance using a laptop computer. Passengers sit in the back.

AVs: Boston's Approach

Boston AV Testing Map

Initial AV testing and rides were limited to certain parts of the city.

 "Autonomous vehicles offer immense promise to help us get closer to these goals. However, the promise of these vehicles isn't a given. They could displace an important workforce and encourage both sprawl and congestion. That’s why we launched an autonomous vehicle testing program. 

"We want to shape the development of technology and policy to deliver on the potential promise — and not the potential drawbacks.

"During our Go Boston 2030 planning, these were the values Boston residents told us they wanted for their transportation system to embody.

Safer Streets: The overwhelming majority of crashes on our streets are caused by human error. The promise of autonomous vehicles is to eliminate up to 90 percent of those crashes.

Better Access: Who stands to benefit most from this technology if it’s applied the right way? Many people, including: the aging population and those with visual impairments, those looking to reduce the burden of personal vehicle ownership, and those without access to rapid transit.

Better Reliability: We can reduce the number of vehicles on our roadways through the adoption of shared fleets of autonomous vehicles. This frees up space for other uses, other travel modes, and creates more predictable travel times." — From of Office of Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh

With autonomous vehicles (also known as AVs) expected to become a major mode of transportation over the next few decades, communities across the United States are trying to figure out how to enable these driverless cars and trucks to safely operate on streets alongside pedestrians and human-operated vehicles. Part of that planning also involves fitting AVs into local transportation systems that might include trains, buses and even ferry boats, in addition to private vehicles.

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh has made such future planning a present-day priority. The city has developed a regulatory framework and implemented a public-private partnership with AV firms to road test, adapt and improve the technology. As part of that process, Boston — which is a member of the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities — is ensuring that the AVs on its streets are able to serve the particular needs and mobility differences of older adults and people with disabilities. When the city government approved on-street testing of the vehicles, it required that such passengers make up at least 15 percent of the rides provided during the pilot phase of vehicle testing.

The city's AV program is "less focused on the technology and more focused on meeting the needs for people," explains Kris Carter, co-chair of the Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics.

The Boston playbook is one that other communities might do well to follow

"The relationship between the city of Boston and the organizations testing AVs here in the commonwealth is a good case study on how public-private partnerships can, if managed well, provide an environment that is appropriate for the transparent and trustable development of AV technology," says Bryan Reimer, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's AgeLab and an associate director of the New England University Transportation Center. "The city and its partners have a strong relationship based upon communication and trust that does not appear in all localities where testing is occurring."

Boston's AV program grew out of Go Boston 2030, a larger transportation strategy conducted from 2015 to 2017. The city sought input from residents, and received thousands of questions, including several hundred about future transportation technologies. The bulk of those, Carter notes, were about self-driving cars.

Bostonians' biggest concerns about the driverless future were safety and accessibility. "When we began seriously looking at autonomous vehicles through a policy lens, we framed it this way," Carter says. "Number one, make the streets safer. Two, make the transportation system more reliable. And three, provide better transportation access for people."

Boston's AV pursuit and planning isn’t being done in a vacuum. The World Economic Forum has been involved, as has Boston Consulting Group, which contributed research on the travel patterns of the city's residents and insights into how AVs might fit into the future transportation model.

Two locally based AV startups, nuTonomy and Optimus Ride, were also part of the conversations.  "We’ve known the co-founders of those companies — Emilio Frazzoli of nuTonomy and Ryan Chin of Optimus — since they were researchers at MIT," says Carter. "Cities need to invest in research and development like private companies do, so make sure we have good connections with research institutions in our city.  We very much look for ways to partner with them, and utilize the assets of the city to further the research." (In late 2017, nuTonomy became part of automotive technology maker Aptiv and has been integrated into its autonomous mobility division.)  

A Passenger's Perspective

One of the riders who participated in the early phase of nuTonomy's autonomous vehicle testing was Jerry Berrier, a Boston-area resident who is in his 60s and has been blind since birth. Berrier described the ride as "very smooth," adding that "I've ridden in human-driven cars that were much less comfortable." Another benefit: "I use ride-hailing services frequently, where blind passengers are noted as such to drivers, resulting in drivers tending to be overly-friendly during the ride," he says. "I actually look forward to the prospect of being able to sit back and relax in an AV without having to interact with a human driver."

NuTonomy had begun testing its technology in Singapore, but Boston — with its harsher winter weather and older, more complex streets — provides a better testing challenge. "Singapore is one of the easiest cities in the developed world to test in," Matt Wansley, nuTonomy's general counsel noted. "Boston is one of the hardest."

In October 2016, Mayor Walsh issued an executive order to allow AV testing on Boston's streets, and assigned the Department of Transportation and the Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics to develop formal policies.

In working with the companies, the city chose to have a slow, graduated rollout of AVs on public streets, starting with a small area and gradually expanding. "It makes the technology a real thing for our residents," Carter explains. "They can understand what it is, and we can gradually build acceptance. It also gives the city a learning curve on how our infrastructure is handled by these vehicles."

AVs can provide solutions and savings

Mandating that at least 15 percent of the test passengers be older adults or people with disabilities is, says Carter, "one subtle way to make sure AV works for the people who need it, people who may feel they don't have an option, and that they're captive to public transit, since they're not all able to drive. AV can provide an opportunity to expand accessibility for them. They shouldn't be left out of the technology development process. Ideally, it should be developed with them in mind first. Getting their input is crucial to making this work."

In fact, it's crucial that AV work for all sorts of people who have trouble getting where they need to go. A 2017 report published by the Ruderman Family Foundation estimates that the technology could save the nation $19 billion in health care costs annually just by reducing the number of medical appointments that are missed due to patients being unable to get to a doctor's office. The authors emphasize that the nascent AV industry needs to pay more attention to designing vehicles with disabled people in mind.

To meet the city's inclusivity goals, nuTonomy, which began testing in January 2017, scheduled rides with seniors and people with disabilities who had been recommended by local service organizations. In addition, the company picked up random Boston residents through a cooperative arrangement with the ride-service company Lyft.

Although polling has shown older people to be wary of AVs, Carter says there was immediate public interest among seniors to participate in the tests. "On the day of the nuTonomy launch, I got a call from a senior asking, 'Can I go for a ride today?'" The woman said that although she already relied on a paratransit service and taxis, an on-demand AV service, sounded like a much better option.

NuTonomy's Wansley has observed the same enthusiasm among older passengers, possibly because having access to rides "represents freedom and autonomy" to them.

Look, No Hands!

Self-Driving Cars in Rochester Hills, Michigan

Mayor Bryan Barnett of Rochester Hills, Michigan, is "at the wheel."

Driverless car pilot programs are operating in locations throughout the nation, including Rochester Hills, Michigan, where AARP and the city government brought residents together to discuss how autonomous vehicles can transform communities and extend mobility options for older adults.

Watch a video about the gathering >

Ensuring safety and solving for snow

When an AV being tested in Arizona struck and killed a pedestrian in March 2018, that laid the groundwork for a different sort of trial for Boston’s program, which in response halted its own testing. The break enabled city officials to deal with the public response and possible worries.

"We managed, over the course of a week and a half, to make sure that the right public leaders were brought into the conversation," explains Carter. "We documented safety strategies, just to ensure that trust between us and the public. I don't think we'd anticipated having to respond to something 2,000 miles away, with a totally different technology platform. But we were able to do that."

After a trial period during which Boston’s AV tests were restricted to only certain parts of the city, in June 2018 officials gave nuTonomy permission to gradually expand its testing.

"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," Mayor Walsh commented in a statement.

Such incremental testing is vital, as is prioritizing accessibility early in the development process. "It may also be an important step in laying the groundwork for automated mobility solutions," Reimer observes, noting that human "drivers do far more than just pilot cars from point A to B. They aid in comfort, door-to-door assistance, baggage and the like."

"What we’ve done with Boston is establish a template and a standardized process," says Daniel Sullivan, a policy assistant with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. More than a dozen other cities and towns in Massachusetts have followed Boston's lead and signed an agreement with the state to allow AVs to be tested on their streets. Still, many challenges remain before AVs can be fully unleashed in Boston — or, for that matter, any snow-prone city or state. Snow banks tend to confuse the sensors that AVs rely upon to navigate.

Once AVs are approved for operation without human drivers and are in wide use, Boston officials envision the vehicles operating as part of ride services, rather than as private vehicles, and fitting into the city's transportation network as a first-mile/last-mile solution for public transit riders, as well as providing transportation in areas that are underserved by other modes.  

"The idea is to build a city that uses AVs to fill in those gaps," Carter says. 

Article published February 2019 | Patrick J. Kiger is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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