June 06, 2017      

Ride-hailing company Lyft and self-driving car software startup nuTonomy partnered today in hopes of bringing an autonomous vehicle service to Boston in the coming months.

The deal still needs to be approved by the city, however. nuTonomy, a startup spun out of MIT, has a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the city of Boston and Massachusetts Department of Transportation to operate its self-driving cars within the Seaport district. nuTonomy’s MOU doesn’t include offering rides to the public.

Lyft expects to receive this approval “in a couple months,” but it says the self-driving car service won’t launch without explicit approval from regulators. If approved, Lyft customers will be able to use the Lyft app to hail a ride in nuTonomy’s self-driving electric Renault around a limited portion of the Seaport, where nuTonomy has been testing three vehicles since November 2016.

Gov. Charlie Baker signed an executive order in 2016 to approve self-driving car tests in Massachusetts. But according to the Boston Herald, Massachusetts officials are still grappling with how to regulate companies that want to transport passengers. Two other companies have approached the state about transporting passengers in self-driving cars.

“I will confess that is something I did not consider when the (executive) order came to us,” Katherine Fitcher, who leads the MassDOT’s autonomous vehicles efforts, said at a meeting last month, according to the Herald.

During a press call announcing the partnership, Lyft and nuTonomy said the goal of this self-driving partnership is to better understand how passengers interact with driverless cars. Safety is one of the biggest hurdles for the self-driving car industry. According to a study conducted by the MIT AgeLab, consumers are actually losing confidence in self-driving vehicles. Most surprisingly, the largest decrease occurred among younger drivers. In 2016, 26% of respondents aged 16-24 reported they were comfortable with full autonomy. This year, that number dropped to 14%.

Confidence in Self-Driving Cars

“We don’t really know in detail how riders are going to engage with autonomous vehicles because, frankly, we just don’t have that much experience,” said nuTonomy CEO and co-founder Karl Iagnemma.

He also confirmed nuTonomy engineers are already working on integrating Lyft software into vehicles. The self-driving cars will require a human safety driver who can take over control of the car in case of emergencies.

“The first stage of the partnership is focused on research and development on passenger experience,” said Lyft CEO Logan Green during the conference call. “The next stages could lead to thousands of nuTonomy cars on the Lyft platform.”

Boston Self-Driving Cars

nuTonomy has been testing self-driving cars in Singapore since August 2016. The company said it plans to launch a complete self-driving taxi service in Singapore in 2018. In October 2016, a nuTonomy self-driving car hit a truck in Singapore as it tried to change lanes. Nobody was injured in the accident. It was the first self-driving car accident in Singapore.

This also isn’t Lyft’s first rodeo with self-driving vehicles. In May 2017, Lyft partnered with Waymo, which is offering rides in its self-driving cars in Arizona. Lyft is also working with GM to deploy a fleet of electric self-driving vehicles in 2018.

The partnership between Lyft and nuTonomy does not include any financial arrangement.