The white Renault making laps around the Marine Industrial Park in South Boston Wednesday afternoon looked a lot like any other compact car. There were, however, a couple of things that made it stand out: a thick metal antenna on the roof and a crowd of news photographers documenting its inaugural journey. Chad Wilkins stopped to watch, too.
"I'm waiting to see if it crashes into anything" said Wilkins, who works in the industrial park at the Boston Design Center.
The self-driving car navigated the roadways without incident. The industrial park isn't as busy as, for instance, Storrow Drive at rush hour, but it is a city neighborhood where pedestrians, trucks and buses share the roadways. The three-mile stretch has stop signs and intersections, but no traffic lights—one reason both the car's designer, Cambridge-based NuTonomy, and the city officials decided this neighborhood would serve as an ideal urban testing ground.
"We're really excited to be part of a transportation revolution in Boston," said Kris Carter, co-chair of Boston's Office of New Urban Mechanics.
Carter said self-driving cars are part of the city's transportation future. He envisions them transporting multiple passengers at once, which he said will ease congestion and make more room for pedestrians and cyclists. He also believes self-driving cars will ultimately make the roads safer. He cited research that indicates 90 percent of automobile crashes are caused by human error.
"One way to think about an autonomous vehicle maybe being safer is that it doesn't get distracted from the roadway. There's not a kid crying in the back seat or a cell phone ringing," said Carter. "That vehicle is always paying attention to the surroundings."
Carter said it's hard to say exactly when self-driving cars will be widely used, though he predicts it could take anywhere between five and 15 years. It will mean convincing skeptics like Wilkins that they're safe.
"I don't know," said Wilkins as he watched the NuTonomy vehicle make another lap, "too many things could go wrong."
The tests now underway are a first step in figuring out how to get it right. They include a safety feature that makes Wilkins feel more comfortable: a NuTonomy engineer is behind the wheel of the self-driving car, ready, if necessary, to take control.