Autonomous Car Testing Could Come to the South End

The Aptiv company now testing autonomous cars in South Boston’s Flynn Marine Park might soon move that testing ground to the South End, and one Southender took a ride recently to get a feel for what the new technology is all about.

Derek Lessing was the lone South End representative to take a ride in an Aptiv autonomous vehicle during a test drive on Nov. 30, and he said the technology is promising, but could lead to more cars on the road if smart policy isn’t put in place now.

“I’m grateful the city is getting out in front of this technology because the policy decisions now will have big implications on how this technology rolls out in the future,” he said. “This technology could definitely prevent deaths because most accidents are because of human error, but if we don’t develop policies alongside this where public transit is prioritized, then we could expect to see even more cars and more car ownership with these…If policies stay the status quo, things will get worse on the roads.”

Lessing said he was one of 12 people that got to ride in the new vehicle, which was a Renault from France equipped to drive under computer guidance. The driver drove them manually out of the parking lot in the Marine Park, but then the computer took over, he said.

“I never felt in danger in the car; I felt completely safe,” he said. “It actually had the feel of being with a driver who is very new, very competent, but very cautious. For example, the car stopped at a stop sign much slower than I or anyone else would have. It also detected a tractor trailer turning, and was able to adjust and move over to give it space to make the turn.”

South End Forum Moderator Steve Fox said the reason for the test drive including the South End is that the pilot testing program at the Marine Park is planned to eventually bleed over into the South End.

“There’s not a lot of traffic in the Marine Park and other parts of Boston are going to be more challenging for it,” he said. “The radius for testing is eventually going to flow to the South End. That will certainly be a much more challenging environment for these cars.”

Lessing said those from the company gave no timeframe as to when they would be starting to bring such vehicles into the neighborhood, but he did say he estimated that widespread use of such cars is at least 10 years away.

“They do have some issues,” he said. “These cars are confused by snow. If they detect it is snowing, they don’t know what is going on…The technology has enormous potential, but we have to be careful of our policy decisions with them.”

Lessing said the cars are programmed to go the speed limit and be more than cautious, especially with pedestrians in or near a crosswalk. They also proceed through green lights with little problem, he said.

“Do they speed up at the yellow light like the rest of us in Boston?” quipped on audience member.

“I don’t think so,” laughed Lessing.

The company has done most of its testing in Arizona, and moved into Boston about a year ago to begin testing such vehicles in the Marine Park. It is chiefly competing with Google’s Waymo division, which is testing and building autonomous cars.

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