How would self-driving cars work in a city known for its labyrinthine streets, frequent road construction and some of the most consistently awful drivers in the country?
Those are just some of the questions city officials hope to tackle by teaming up with researchers at the World Economic Forum, part of a one-year pilot program announced by Mayor Marty Walsh this week.
The collaboration will draft policy recommendations and also determine the safest way to conduct on-the-road testing of self-driving vehicles, a statement from the the mayor’s office said.
Walsh said that he views the project as an important part of his administration’s Go Boston 2030 project, a sort of master plan for the city’s transportation future that aims to improve access to and the safety of the city’s transit system.
That program includes a bold goal that would eliminate all fatal and serious car crashes in the city by 2030. An average of about two pedestrians are hit by a motorist in Boston every day, according to city figures.
"Boston's collaboration with the World Economic Forum represents our commitment to creating a safe, reliable and equitable mobility plan for Boston's residents,” Walsh said in a statement. “We are focused on the future of our city and how we safely move people around while providing them with reliable mobility choices."
The thrust of the partnership is to brainstorm how the technology of driverless cars might be introduced to Boston. There's no timetable for when such vehicles would be tested on city streets.
If you’re concerned about roadway fatalities, the prospect of taking humans out of the driving equation is likely an appealing one: About 37,000 people die from collisions each year in the United States, with about 94 percent of all accidents, fatal or not, attributed to driver error, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Beyond the potential to save tens of thousands of lives each year, taking steps to move toward a system of shared, fully driverless vehicles would be a revolutionary change to our transportation model and way of life, said Nidhi Kalra, who studies the driverless cars and their impact at the Rand Corporation.
“If you remember back to the late 80s or early 90s, when we had a dim idea of what the Internet could be—like, oh, I can send mail faster, that’s cool—now it’s clearly completely transformative,” she said. “I think we’re at the same place with autonomous vehicles: this idea that instead of driving myself, someone else can drive for me, oh, ‘that’s cool.’ In 30 or 40 years we’ll look back and say, what were we thinking?”
Such a shared system would reduce the need for parking spaces, radically improve congestion and could also lower the barriers to entry for other environmentally friendly technologies, like hydrogen-powered engines, Kalra said.
They’d also increase mobility for those without access to their own cars, such as young people, those with disabilities that prevent them from driving or others who can’t afford a vehicle.
“There’s a huge opportunity there that we don’t often talk about, because we don’t often talk about technology’s impact on the underserved,” Kalra said. “Autonomous vehicles can democratize mobility. You give people more choice, more accessibility at a lower cost, so you don’t always have to walk or ride the bus.”
Of course, the change would also have a tremendous impact on millions of livery drivers, truckers and other workers who drive for a living. Mining company Rio Tinto already employs 45 240-ton driverless trucks to move iron ore in two of its mines in Australia, saying it is cheaper and safer than using human drivers.
Presumably, though, these are the sorts of cost-benefit analyses that will be tackled by the pilot program in the coming year.
“There’s a race to kind of capture the autonomous vehicle industry by saying, ‘hey, you can come here first, you can test here first, we want that innovation here,’” Karla said.
“But it’s not going to be won by who gets them first, but who gets them best—who uses [this technology] in a way that forwards all of their transportation goals. It doesn’t happen without planning, so the fact that Boston is going to engage in planning is a great sign.”