One of the reasons I’m looking forward to Thanksgiving is to hear my Grandma drop some of her sayings. In particular, I enjoy her reminding me that “Just because you’re biased, Michael, it doesn’t mean you’re wrong.” Here’s an good example of that: Kendall Square, a neighborhood on the East side of my hometown of Cambridge, is the Silicon Valley of the East Coast. The home of thousands of MIT students, and many more MIT-affiliated startups, contains the headquarters of a ton of big-time biotech firms as well other tech giants like Hubspot.
Kendall Square, on the Charles River.
One startup in Kendall Square that I hadn’t heard of until recently is nuTonomy Inc. You may not know much about it, either, but you may be encountering the company’s work soon. The software developer, backed by more than $16 million in recently-raised venture capital money, is finalizing a deal with Boston City Hall to test out driverless cars on Boston streets before the end of the year. Aptly, the test drive will take place at a Seaport-area Marine Park named after former Boston mayor Ray Flynn. Flynn was the mayor over thirty years ago, and couldn’t have imagined the kind of tech transformation that has recently taken place here. Also, the Seaport district is where GE’s new headquarters will be, and Boston allured GE in large part due its proximity to Kendall Square’s innovation hub.
Where the test will take place. GE’s new office will near the Children’s Museum.
The Marine Industrial Park is an ideal testing ground for nuTonomy, as it has “three miles of roadways in a contained space that is nonetheless open to the public and will require the car to navigate amid pedestrians, cars, bikes and the MBTA’s silver line.” Kris Carter, the cochair of a department that I didn’t know existed but shows how forward thinking Mayor Walsh is, the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, said that the park is a “similar road network to what you would see in a lot of places, though there are no traffic lights and the volume of traffic is a little bit less.”
These nuTonomy cars aren’t actually nuTonomy cars, though, because nuTonomy doesn’t make cars. For this test, nuTonomy will slap its logo on electric cars from Renault, a French carmaker. Founded in 2013, nuTonomy’s ultimate goal is providing driverless taxi services in cities, and they tested that out in a pilot (put not intended, but intended) program in Singapore this past August, though those cars did have a person overseeing the operation from the driver’s seat in case of emergency. The cars driving around the Marine Park will also have someone in the driver’s seat, but nuTonomy doesn’t plan on launching self-driving cabs in Boston anytime soon. However, Carter said that the testing could expand to more public areas if the initial round goes well. It probably will go well because nuTonomy, which has offices in Singapore, has also tested on closed courses in Michigan and England, so this will only be the first time for Boston, not nuTonomy. Still, as CEO Karl Iagnemma told the Globe, “Every company — nuTonomy and every other company working in this space — will be required to adapt their technology either a little or a lot depending on what part of the world they’re driving in.” Considering the, um, unique driving environment of Boston, Iagnemma and his team will probably have to land on the “a lot” side of that spectrum if they want to be a part of transportation fabric here.
Despite what I said earlier about the innovation culture in and across the river from Boston, nuTonomy and the Hub’s partnership is more of a keeping-up that an trend setting move. Pittsburgh was the first city to allow Uber to pickup riders in self driving cars, and Boston usually doesn’t lose to Pittsburgh. In response, the city struck a deal with the World Economic Forum in September to be a part of a program that “focused on the future of urban transportation,” with city officials “working with the Switzerland-based organization to develop policy recommendations for the fast –emerging technology.” Some questioned the legality of the agreement, but Walsh and Governor Baker both issued executive orders to expedite the process for getting these driverless cars on the road. The city and the state need to do more than stay ahead of the curve with this stuff, because there’s no reason that an area home to Kendall Square should be doing anything other than setting the curve.