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Self-Driving Cars Pose Policy Problems For State

Sen. Tom McGee (center) and Rep. William Straus (right) listen to a presentation on autonomous vehicles.
Sen. Tom McGee (center) and Rep. william Straus (right) listen to a presentation on autonomous vehicles.
Mike Deehan

A team of state officials got a preview of what Massachusetts could look like when fleets of autonomous vehicles take to the streets and highways in the coming years.

"These things are going to begin to show up in regular cars that are available for purchase. Not full automation, but the kinds of driver-assist technologies that we're already seeing," said Katherine Fichter, MassDOT's Assistant Secretary for Policy Coordination.

"So it'll be coming from a couple of different directions so we want to be in front of it so that we're handling it appropriately," Fichter said.

The Autonomous Vehicles Working Group, which includes representatives from several of Gov. Charlie Baker's top cabinet departments, was established by executive order in October 2016 and tasked with navigating safety guidelines for driverless cars while fostering a welcoming business climate for companies that want to research or build the machines here.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack told a small audience gathered at MassDOT's headquarters that the goal of the group is to get smart enough about the issues so that they can offer recommendations for how best the autonomous vehicle industry can be introduced here in Massachusetts.

At the first public meeting of the task force, the company that partnered with the City of Boston last year to test a fleet of self-driving cars in the city, Nutonomy, announced that it has completed it's first stage of tests by driving 100 miles in the a designated area at the South Boston Marine Park. With the city's further permission, the company will begin stage two, testing in more adverse weather conditions and at night.

Two elected officials, the House and Senate chairs of the Transportation Committee, sat on the panel and questioned the presenters who gave reports on the status of autonomous vehicles, also known as AVs, in Boston and other cities, and also some of the pitfalls for planning policy around a sea change in how we travel.

"Motor vehicle and road safety is our responsibility as public officials, so we have a tricky balancing effort to invite, encourage, promote the development of autonomous vehicle technology, but we also have to do it in a way that is of paramount protection to the public safety interest of other motorists, pedestrians and cyclists," Rep. William Straus, the House Transportation Committee chairman, told WGBH News after the meeting.

A presentation from engineering firm WSP-Parsons Brinckerhoff's Stephen Buckley gave an overview of how the AV market could develop and laid out two main models: one where privately-owned vehicles replace traditional cars and another with fleets of AVs operating in shared ride-hailing services.

"It's no longer an 'if,'" said Buckley, "but a 'when' and a 'how,'" that transportation policymakers need to prepare for.

Straus was interested in knowing how data is collected by the automatic mapping software that guides the cars, as well as the potential for troves of personal data generated by computers piloting residents' trips practically everywhere they go.

The task force's next meeting is set for March 22.

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