Boston Test of Self-Driving Cars Reveals Five Key Lessons for Cities Worldwide

Trials Yield Insights on the Opportunities and Challenges Leaders Face in Planning Future Transportation Systems, BCG-World Economic Forum Report Says

BOSTON, Oct. 17, 2017 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- Boston is one of a handful of US cities leading the charge to test self-driving cars. Launched last fall, the city’s Autonomous Vehicle (AV) Initiative has already yielded five important lessons for government leaders and policymakers, according to a new report from The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), which together with the World Economic Forum, has been partnering with the city to roll out the initiative and assess its results.

The report, Making Autonomous Vehicles a Reality: Lessons from Boston and Beyond, is BCG’s latest on autonomous driving and the fourth issued with the Forum as part of the two organizations’ multiyear joint project on shaping the future of urban mobility with AVs. The report describes the opportunities and challenges that have surfaced in the first six months of Boston’s field-testing experience and offers initial recommendations for other cities and public-sector entities.

Boston’s multiphase testing program began in January with Cambridge-based AV software maker NuTonomy conducting trials of autonomous cars on public roads within Raymond L. Flynn Marine Park in the Seaport District. After the vehicles clocked more than 200 miles at different times of day and in different weather conditions, the program was expanded in June to include testing with Optimus Ride (like NuTonomy, an MIT spinoff) and Delphi Automotive, a tier-one automotive supplier, throughout the district.

“Boston is a great example of the type of multistakeholder cooperation required to successfully develop new mobility business models—models that can help cities solve their most pressing transportation challenges and improve livability for their residents,” says Nikolaus Lang, a senior partner at BCG and coauthor of the report. “The speed with which the city has moved from initial announcement to piloting has been impressive.”

Preliminary Takeaways, Practical and Strategic

As summarized in the report, Boston’s initiative reveals five key lessons that policymakers, planners, and other private- and public-sector stakeholders involved in shaping the future of urban mobility should keep in mind:

  • Autonomous vehicles come in many forms. Cities should consider all forms of AV transportation—private AVs, taxis (shared or single passenger), and shuttle buses—in all of their permutations. Every city will need to identify which modes are best suited to its particular challenges and goals.
  • Each city’s unique context and needs matter. Depending on its particular circumstances and existing infrastructure, every city will need to determine which needs are best served by AVs—such as linking neighborhoods that are not currently well connected to public-transit offerings.
  • Asset ownership isn’t necessary. Cities do not have to own or even operate the new transportation assets; they need only enable deployment. Already grappling with many competing budgetary demands, they should focus on establishing the right policies and regulatory environment within which third-party providers can operate. Third-party offerings, however, should conform to a city’s planning goals, such as encouraging ride sharing or filling mobility needs not presently served by mass transit.
  • Having a digital mobility platform is critical. A digital platform that aggregates all transportation modes, which Boston is envisioning, can help manage traffic volume and flows while providing important data for planning. It can also offer consumers a single easy-to-use access point for information and reservations. Designing such a system, however, requires substantial intraregional cooperation, coordination, and co-investment.
  • Cities must take ownership of mobility ecosystem management. Cities must take the lead in establishing a governance structure and testing policy and parameters to foster innovative solutions to their most pressing transportation challenges. By working cooperatively with state and national agencies, they can make considerable progress.

Could AVs Be a Victim of Their Own Success?

As the report notes, autonomous cars (particularly electrically powered ones), in tandem with sharing models, promise enormous benefits to urban communities and to society in general. These benefits include greater safety, lower emissions, reduced congestion, more available parking space, greater access for nondrivers, more reliable and less stressful transportation, cost efficiency, and greater productivity. “But achieving them requires the right mix of ambitious planning, regulation, testing, and careful execution,” notes John Moavenzadeh, head of the Mobility Industries and System Initiative at the World Economic Forum. “All key stakeholders must be involved—to ensure the greatest benefit to the most people, while minimizing unintended consequences.”

Indeed, the Boston initiative—which involved extensive scenario modeling and simulations as well as field testing—not only highlighted the potential benefits of AVs but revealed a few potential issues that stakeholders should watch out for. In short, AVs run the risk becoming victims of their own success. By making mobility cheaper and more convenient, they could increase the demand for transportation. If people were to use AVs more often and in an ad hoc manner—to run simple errands, such as picking up the dry-cleaning, for example—the result could be more, not less traffic congestion. Greater congestion could also result from a rise in certain types of zero-occupancy trips, such as when AVs cruise the streets to save on parking costs.

Another potentially undesirable outcome: AVs could contribute to urban sprawl if commuters conclude that they can live farther out of town because commuting to work has become faster, less stressful, and more comfortable.

“All of these possibilities underscore the need for public-sector managers and leaders at the city, county, and state levels to participate in formulating a transportation strategy that includes autonomous transportation modes, yields the greatest benefits to the largest number of stakeholders, and minimizes unintended consequences,” cautions Michael Rüssman, another BCG senior partner and report coauthor.

How and Why Boston Was Chosen for the Pilot

In 2016, BCG and the World Economic Forum chose Boston from a broad set of global cities as their partner in developing an urban transportation strategy that included new mobility business models and studying AV deployment. The city’s assets—its stature as a technology hub, its vibrant economy, and its openness to innovation—along with its challenges (a strained transportation system, complex physical layout, and rugged winters) made it an apt candidate. In addition, Boston had already formulated a long-term, far-reaching transportation vision and plan, of which its AV initiative was one component.

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh announced the AV initiative in September 2016. Any new mobility model had to align with the city’s broader transportation goals. We are committed to making our transportation system safer, more reliable, more equitable, and more accessible. And we believe autonomous vehicles have the potential to help us achieve these goals,” he explains. “That’s why we are actively engaged in that space—and we look forward to ensuring that autonomous vehicles work well for all of our residents, no matter who they are or how they travel.”

The report describes many of the key practices that Boston put in place that have contributed to the project’s success so far. For example, to ensure momentum from the beginning, Mayor Walsh issued an executive order on autonomous vehicles; shortly thereafter, his team worked with MassDOT to craft a testing plan, application process, and memorandum of understanding for AV companies. NuTonomy was the first AV company to go through this process, with Optimus Ride and Delphi Automotive following in 2017.

Key members of the Mayor’s team included Boston Commissioner of Transportation Gina Fiandaca; Chris Osgood, Chief of the Streets, Transportation, and Sanitation; and Kris Carter and Nigel Jacob, cochairs of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, the city’s civic innovation team. City leaders have also coordinated with MassDOT, the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, and the Massachusetts Port Authority.

Close collaboration between city and state officials in designing a flexible program played a vital role in its success, says Lang. “An agile development approach and the city’s partnership with multiple private-sector mobility providers were important in accelerating planning and testing. And they have also been critical in spurring innovation.” The approach developed in Massachusetts provides a clear path for industry partners as well as tools for local decision makers to ensure that the technology serves the needs of their residents. (For more on the city’s AV program and its progress, go to

A copy of the report can be downloaded at

Videos on BCG’s and the Forum’s collaboration with the City of Boston can be viewed at

To arrange an interview with one of BCG’s autonomous vehicle experts, please contact Eric Gregoire at +1 617 850 3783 or

About The Boston Consulting Group
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About the World Economic Forum
The World Economic Forum, committed to improving the state of the world, is the international organization for public-private cooperation. The Forum engages the foremost political, business, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas. For more information, please visit

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