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Self-driving car testing stopped after Uber accident

Cars driving on Storrow Drive in Boston. Boston officials have asked companies to stop self-driving car tests in Seaport. PHOTO BY NICKI GITTER/ DFP FILE PHOTO

The Boston Transportation Department shut down all autonomous vehicle testing in the city after a self-driving Uber car struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona Sunday.

Optimus Ride and nuTonomy, the companies evaluating these types of cars, have been testing driverless cars on public streets in the Seaport District for over a year. The accident involving the Uber vehicle is believed to be the first fatality associated with self-driving cars.

Gina Fiandaca, the commissioner of the BTD, said in a statement that both companies have complied and agreed to re-evaluate their safety protections before testing begins again.

“As a precautionary measure, we have temporarily asked nuTonomy and Optimus Ride to pause their autonomous vehicle testing programs on public streets in Boston,” Fiandaca said. “The Boston Transportation Department will be working with both companies to review their safety procedures to ensure that each program can move forward.”

Uber stopped all testing after a self-driving car, with a backup driver in the vehicle, killed a pedestrian in Phoenix overnight Sunday. The pedestrian, a woman in her late 40s, was trying to walk across the street outside of a crosswalk when she was struck. She died at a hospital several hours later.

A spokesperson at NuTonomy wrote in a statement that the company plans to ensure their vehicles maintain strict safety guidelines going forward.

“We are working with City of Boston officials to ensure that our automated vehicle pilots continue to adhere to high standards of safety,” the spokesperson wrote. “We have complied with the City of Boston’s request to temporarily halt autonomous vehicle testing on public roads.”  

The City of Boston has a goal of eliminating up to 90 percent of car crashes in the city that are due to human error by using self-driving cars, according to the City’s official autonomous vehicle plan. The plan says that autonomous vehicles will benefit the aging population, those with visual impairments and those looking to ease the burden of owning a vehicle themself.

Camila Azuero, 37, of East Boston, said she believes that Boston officials made the right call.

“I’m worried because I don’t think they made clear to the public how much regulation, if any, there is around self-driving cars, like what the science there is behind it to show how safe they are,” Azuero said. “Whether or not it’s going to make people happy is something else, but until we can find out how safe they are and set safety standards like we do with all other types of cars, it’s appropriate.”

Irving Bigio, a biomedical engineering professor at Boston University, said Boston officials acted based on a “misguided, knee-jerk reaction.”  

“It’s just like when everyone says, ‘There’s an airplane crash, I’m going to stop flying airplanes,’ even though it’s the safest way to travel over a long distance,” Biogio said.

Individuals would better benefit from looking at other statistics, he said, such as how many miles these types of cars and their accident rate, and then compare that to accident rates for driven vehicles.

Bigio said autonomous vehicles have been tested all over the world with a remarkably small accident rate.

“There’s obviously a range, some companies are probably doing a better job of it than others — whether Google’s car is better than Lyft’s car, I don’t know — but the number of reported incidents is astoundingly small,” Bigio said. “I think it’s clear that if not already than very soon, these cars will simply be considerably safer than people driving cars with all their distractions…”

Examination of the tests in Boston was initially conducted within a small block radius and only piloted during good weather and daylight hours, according to the City’s plan. Testing was expanded to 1,000 acres of the South Boston Waterfront before it was halted after Sunday’s accident.


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