Driverless vehicle tests were once limited to warm and dry climates, but tech companies are finally branching out. nuTonomy, a startup building algorithms for self-driving cars, recently began testing its fleet in Boston, Massachusetts. This public road test – the first of any within the state – has already allowed nuTonomy to gain new insight into autonomous vehicle development.
“Massachusetts gives us a second, quite unique geography in our testing,” said Karl Iagnemma, co-founder and CEO of nuTonomy. “Our first is Singapore, where we’ve been driving regularly on public roads for many months.”
Iagnemma described Singapore as a very warm and wet environment with moderate traffic density.
“Boston, on the other hand, is cold, snowy, a bit more cluttered with traffic patterns that are a bit more complex than in Singapore,” he said. “The reason we were excited about getting on the road is it gave us a very distinct driving environment that has allowed us to stress test our software. It’s been pretty interesting so far.”
nuTonomy has already discovered things in Boston that it did not encounter in Singapore, including different vehicles (ex: Boston has long, articulated buses) and flocks of large birds. Iagnemma said the firm’s goal is to conduct road tests in as many conditions as possible to build a “very robust software system that’s truly scalable in a global fashion.”
Not All Roads Are Created Equal
On the note of scalability, nuTonomy wants to develop an algorithm that can handle the many differences encountered on roads throughout the world.
“The most obvious difference between driving in Singapore and driving anywhere in the U.S. is that you’re driving on an opposite side of the road,” said Iagnemma. “This is something that as humans requires a little bit of adaptation when you’re traveling. It can be a little bit nerve-racking and stressful because you have to be thinking carefully about all your driving decisions.”
If an autonomous vehicle is going to make a similar transition (and drive well in any location), it’s going to need software that can understand those differences.
“Often these systems are engineered around a particular driving environment,” Iagnemma added. “To go in and change something in your decision-making software is fundamental. Right hand versus left hand driving – it can take a huge amount of effort. That was one of the biggest tests we wanted to stress in this new environment and we passed that test with flying colors.”
Snow, Objects And More
In addition to vehicle types and obvious weather changes, Iagnemma said that nuTonomy found “significant differences in the way people use the road” across Singapore and Boston.
“In Singapore oftentimes you’ll find pedestrians walking on the very shoulder of the road,” he explained. “You don’t see that as much in Boston. On the other hand, in Boston you’ll see a lot more joggers and cyclists than we do in Singapore.”
Snow still presents a challenge, but nuTonomy is working hard to overcome this obstacle.
“We have actually done some driving in snowy conditions, some at Mcity,” said Iagnemma, referring to the autonomous vehicle testing ground at the University of Michigan. “It’s one of the advantages of being in Boston. We’ve been able to collect valuable data under a wide range of conditions, including some very dense and heavy snow. And other conditions, where snow wasn’t falling but there’s significant snow cover on the ground, [which] basically changes the shape of the landscape. It can all impact the system’s performance.”
Iagnemma added that nuTonomy is now at a place where its system can perform in some but not all snowy conditions.
“We collect a lot of data,” he said. “We’ll keep doing it this winter. I think this is really a frontier that we, as an industry and as a company, will be tackling head-on in the coming winters.”
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Louis Bedigian is an experienced journalist and contributor to various automotive trade publications. He is a dynamic writer, editor and communications specialist with expertise in the areas of journalism, promotional copy, PR, research and social networking.