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Green light for self-driving car tests in Mass. — under certain conditions

Massachusetts officials said the state will issue permits for testing self-driving vehicle projects in Boston and other cities while lawmakers work on explicitly legalizing the rapidly developing technology.
Massachusetts officials said the state will issue permits for testing self-driving vehicle projects in Boston and other cities while lawmakers work on explicitly legalizing the rapidly developing technology. Yong Teck Lim/Associated Press/Associated Press

Massachusetts officials took another step toward allowing self-driving cars on the roads, saying Thursday that the state will issue permits for test projects in Boston and other cities while lawmakers consider explicitly legalizing the rapidly developing technology.

In an executive order, Governor Charlie Baker clarified the terms under which autonomous vehicles might be tested on Massachusetts roads, including a requirement that all such cars carry a person who can “take immediate control of the vehicle if necessary.”

The state still needs to develop detailed guidelines, including a permitting process for autonomous vehicle companies. But officials expect to begin approving tests in “months, not years,” Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said.

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NuTonomy Inc., a Cambridge company that is already testing its software in self-driving taxis in Singapore, said expects to quickly seek permission to conduct similar tests here.

“It’s an important step, and a way to reassure companies like mine that we’ll be able to operate under predictable conditions and eventually go to market in Massachusetts,” nuTonomy chief executive Karl Iagnemma said.

The new state policy clarifies a gray area in the state’s statutes. As Baker acknowledged, Massachusetts law doesn’t specifically allow or prohibit cars that can take over some or all of its key tasks from a human driver.

The executive order clarifies that any autonomous vehicles must pass state inspection, which could limit which experimental cars will be allowed on Massachusetts roads. Google’s autonomous vehicles, for example, don’t have brake pedals or steering wheels, which are required under state rules.

Government officials here and across the US are under pressure to update their road rules as carmakers and technology companies rapidly introduce working models of driverless cars.

Uber has an ongoing test of driverless cars in Pittsburgh. This week, electric car maker Tesla, which already has a steering and braking-assistance feature called Autopilot, said all its new vehicles will be fitted with cameras, radar, and other sensors that could eventually allow “full self-driving capability at a safety level substantially greater than that of a human driver.”

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Ford has said it intends to have an autonomous car capable of nearly all driving tasks available for commercial use in transportation services in 2021.

“Highly automated vehicles will play a role in our mobility future. The only question is how fast,” said Bryan Reimer, associate director of the New England University Transportation Center at MIT. “Is it five years? Is it 10 years? Is it longer? If anybody has that crystal ball, they should be playing the stock market.”

In September, US transportation regulators proposed safety guidelines for vehicles that can operate on their own, and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said the city would launch a study of driverless cars in partnership with the World Economic Forum.

In a separate order Thursday, Walsh placed the city’s transportation commissioner in charge of autonomous vehicles in the city. Walsh also said Boston would prefer a taxi-like fleet of shared, electric vehicles over a flood of individually owned cars, citing the need to help “those least well served by transportation options today.”

Baker’s order puts the state’s Transportation Department in charge of permitting highly automated vehicles. The state will also establish an Autonomous Vehicle Working Group that will consult experts and propose changes in state law to establish safety standards for partially and highly-automated vehicles.

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MIT’s Reimer said Baker’s policy was a welcome step that should foster the industry in Massachusetts.

“Given the incredible academic wealth in the Boston area, this is needed to keep Boston in the game,” he said. “And it’s better late than never.”

Iagnemma of nuTonomy said he is eager to begin testing the company’s software closer to home, in part because of the challenge it would pose. While Boston’s notoriously twisting roadways, extreme weather, and fearless jaywalkers can terrify human drivers, they’re a perfect scenario for perfecting the finer points of driverless tech, he said.

“If we can drive successfully in Boston, we should be able to tackle just about anywhere,” he said.


Curt Woodward can be reached at curt.woodward@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @curtwoodward.