Massachusetts clearing a lane for self-driving cars

Massachusetts is a state known for its progressive government support of innovation and academe. But with the emergence of self-driving cars, government officials are being challenged to balance their role as tech industry boosters and that of regulatory watchdog in the name of public safety.

According to MassLive.com, several Massachusetts government departments will soon convene a meeting with industry researchers, planners, representatives and others about what self-driving car regulations the state should consider.

“We have to look at Massachusetts state policies and find out how well the policies that we have on the books align with the testing for self-driving cars,” said Katie Stebbins, an official with the state’s Office of Housing and Economic Development. “The law states currently, a human has to be driving a car.”

Meanwhile, a draft study is due in April that will provide the government with analysis of the state’s robotics sector, which includes self-driving automobiles. The study is being done by the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, a public economic think tank focused on promoting the technology sector.

As well, state officials are currently mulling whether to green light a proposal that would allow a self-driving car test facility on the former army base in Devens.

“If we are going to make an investment… we want to make sure we’re making the smartest investment for Massachusetts based on our strengths,” said Stebbins.

Massachusetts making major inroads

Other U.S. regions are leading the development of self-driving cars, chiefly Silicon Valley with its computer prowess, and Detroit, the country’s traditional automotive capital. However, Massachusetts is making major in-roads in autonomous car technology.

Most notably Toyota agreed to a five-year, $1 billion research project spearheaded by a former professor at Needham’s Olin College of Engineering. The money will be split between Cambridge and Palo Alto, with the project run by a team that includes engineers from Olin College and MIT.

The ethical, regulatory and technical concerns raised by self-driving automobiles are being puzzled over at every government level. The federal transportation department is planning sessions in California and D.C. in an effort to create safety guidelines for self-driving cars. This follows Congress’ recent hearings into self-driving automobiles.

And on a state level, Rhode Island joins Massachusetts in its attempts to impose some government regulation on the autonomous vehicles. A senator there recently introduced a bill to allow testing and driving such cars on the state’s roads.

Wherever the legislative journey for self-driving cars is going, industry experts predict there’s going to be some twists and turns along the road.

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