Google, Uber, nuTonomy?

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.


  1. When I heard that Pittsburgh started testing self driving cars, I thought it would be a pretty slow transition before they brought it into other cities. I can’t believe another company is about to start testing them in Boston! This is a big deal and just shows that self driving car are going to be happening quicker than I ever expected. I hadn’t heard of nuTonomy before. I also hadn’t heard of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, how cool! Great post!

  2. bishopkh1 · ·

    This was a great post! It’s really cool to see Boston on the forefront of self-driving cars, and even a commitment from city officials to be focused on the future of urban transportation. I think it’s a really smart move for the city to be advocating for self-driving cars, as Boston suffers from horrible public transportation. The T is one of the most inefficient public transportation systems compared with those of other major cities like NYC. It will be interesting to see how Boston’s commitment to the future of urban transportation can make Boston a leader in the sphere.

  3. I learned something new from your post: driver-less cars are coming to the streets of Boston, sooner rather than later. It is interesting that NUTONOMY is retrofitting existing cars. I wonder if that model is repeatable large-scale? Just think … you could drop your car off for a few days, like you’re getting a new head gasket or your fuel-injectors replaced, and, instead, you’re going to leave the shop with a driver-less car you can control from your smart phone. I’m having a difficult time imagining how this will work with our current system and behaviors, yet I’m convinced it will happen.

  4. mashamydear · ·

    Informative blog post! I think if Renault self-driving cars can navigate Boston, they can pretty much do it anywhere. I wonder how the self-driving technology changes when you have the T and automobiles pretty much driving side by side, and how the infrastructure of Boston’s public transportation will change going forward when the majority of people really start to adopt self driving cars. In my opinion, I think we’re going to start seeing the affects of widespread adoption not for quite some time, but the testing you wrote about is clearly a sign that we’re moving in that direction.
    With that being said, I think testing will become more and more rigorous as these cars will have to make very important decisions, so I’m curious to see the testing segment of the automobile industry expand as well.

  5. ikechukwu_28 · ·

    Cool post Hoff. Great to see Massachusetts on the forefront of this kind of technology. Boston is a great location to test out driverless cars also. If a car can get around the ridiculous, windings streets of Boston, then most likely they would be able to get around anywhere in the US! Also, the sooner the better. Having been raised in Boston my whole life, I know how bad public transportation is around here. Hopefully this will provide an alternative.

  6. Aditya Murali · ·

    Cool post! I am very interested to see if Nutonomy can last. Lets say their Boston program works well and they are very successful. Even in this best case scenario, will they be able to outperform companies like Uber, Lyft and Google who have unlimited resources and money (in comparison)? I see a situation where if they are successful, Uber can acquire them to get the data they’ve collected on Boston, so they can integrate this into their driverless vehicles and not have to do field tests themselves. I see a future where small startups do the legwork in terms of getting their cars/technology used to the specifics of each major city/state, and when that’s done, major players in the autonomous car industry will absorb them and get even bigger and richer!

  7. Nice post. Interesting to see how quickly all this self-driving car stuff is taking off in so many ways.

  8. I remember Professor Kane saying in class about driverless cars and GPS systems “if they can work in Boston, they can work anywhere” because like you said, Boston’s road infrastructure is definitely, well, very unique. With the abundance of grads from top-tier schools in this area that dominate the realm of Computer Science like MIT, Harvard, and Northeastern (I love BC but I do believe Northeastern is definitely a step ahead of us in this field), this really is the perfect storm of variables for testing self-driving cars.

    I was also unaware that there was a Mayor’s Office of Urban Mechanics but it’s definitely something that needs to be addressed. With a higher and higher percentage of the population expected to live in cities, Boston needs to be on top of this so our traffic situation doesn’t end up as bad as some of the other major cities in this country.

    Great post overall

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