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Cambridge City Council Votes to Begin Autonomous Vehicle Testing

Cambridge City Hall
Cambridge City Hall.

The Cambridge City Council unanimously voted to begin autonomous vehicle testing on city streets at a meeting Monday.

The adopted policy order, which defines autonomous vehicles as “self-driving cars,” states that Cambridge will join a regional AV testing program put forth by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and the Metropolitan Mayors Coalition of Greater Boston, with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the Governor’s Office.

According to City Councillor Quinton Zondervan, who sponsored the policy order with Vice Mayor Jan Devereux, autonomous vehicles have already been on city streets but are still being operated by human drivers. The newly adopted framework would allow a self-driving car to be turned on “autonomous mode” in Cambridge, given certain conditions.

Among these requirements are a minimum of two test drivers per vehicle, an adherence to all city speed limits such as new 20 mph safety zones, and the submission of data and information gathered from the tests upon the city’s request.

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Another precaution consists of a step-by-step system that ensures the companies advancing the AV testing are meeting safety thresholds. The companies have to follow a “clear progression of increasingly difficult situations” before self-driving cars can be completely autonomous, Zondervan said.

This testing of self-driving cars continues after an AV operated by Uber killed a pedestrian in Arizona on Mar. 18. Following the fatal crash, Arizona Governor Doug A. Ducey suspended further AV testing in the state. After the accident, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh also ordered a moratorium on AV testing in Boston.

Zondervan said one of the problems in Arizona was the vehicle’s high speed, highlighting that testing self-driving cars in Cambridge would have to be done “very carefully and very slowly.” Devereux agreed that AV testing in Cambridge would be different.

“Arizona has different policies than Massachusetts does for the testing that they’re doing. Uber is using different software, and it’s not one of the companies that is involved in the Massachusetts testing,” Devereux said. “Fortunately, there is a better way and a safer way to move the technology forward.”

Just last week, Walsh reinstated Boston’s AV testing program, which partners with technology companies like nuTonomy, Optimus Ride, and Aptiv. According to Cambridge’s policy order, these companies have demonstrated a “stellar safety record” in AV testing across the world.

“One of the companies, nuTonomy, has also tested vehicles in Singapore, which has a very different driving culture,” Devereux said. “They recognize there are regional differences in driving styles and rules and roads.”

According to Devereux, companies would undertake AV testing within the context of Vision Zero, a strategy unanimously adopted by Cambridge in 2016. The strategy strives for zero fatal crashes, Devereux said, whether the vehicles are autonomous or not.

“I found the conversation really reassuring that safety is driving what they’re doing, and that it’s not a rush to bring to market autonomous software that isn’t ready,” Devereux said.

—Staff writer Patricia J. Liu can be reached at patricia.liu@thecrimson.com

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