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Massachusetts Aims To Create Framework To Test Autonomous Vehicles

Massachusetts is moving toward providing a regulatory framework for testing autonomous vehicles in the state. Pictured: A row of Google self-driving Lexus cars at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. (Eric Risberg/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Massachusetts is moving toward providing a regulatory framework for testing autonomous vehicles in the state. Pictured: A row of Google self-driving Lexus cars at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. (Eric Risberg/AP)

As self-driving cars inch closer to getting onto the region's roadways, the state is trying to get a handle on the technology — and the regulatory challenges it brings.

Gov. Charlie Baker issued an executive order Thursday to create a special working group on autonomous vehicles. The group — dubbed "The AV Working Group" — will examine things like motor vehicle safety, proposed legislation and a state approval process for companies that want to test out autonomous vehicles. The idea is to promote the testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles in the state by creating a framework for companies using this technology.

In a statement, Baker said the state's academic institutions and tech companies make Massachusetts "uniquely qualified" to be a leader in this field.

His order outlines what's called a "Memorandum of Understanding" agreement, which companies will have to enter into with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and any affected municipalities or state agencies if they want to test self-driving cars on the roadways. In order to get approval from MassDOT, companies will have to submit an application showing the vehicle passed a Registry of Motor Vehicles inspection, can be operated without "undue risk" to the public, and will have a person inside at all times during travel.

"Public safety will be our top priority," Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said in a statement. "As we collaborate with municipal and private sector partners, the Memorandum of Understanding will enable safe testing with people ready to take the wheel on pre-approved routes."

In Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh is also looking at policies around autonomous vehicles. Just last month, Walsh announced the city would test self-driving cars by the end of the year as part of a pilot program. In a statement Thursday, Walsh said the city will support the development of "policies that ensure this innovation will benefit all of our residents."

Walsh also issued his own executive order Thursday, which gives the city's transportation commissioner, Gina Fiandaca, oversight of autonomous vehicles in the city and tasked the Boston Transportation Department and the Mayor's Officer of New Urban Mechanics with developing guidelines for testing self-driving cars as well as policy recommendations.

Fiandaca said the city will work with the state to develop a policy framework for autonomous vehicles -- which it sees as part of its long-term mobility strategy.

"We see the value in autonomous vehicles being number one: safer streets, number two: more efficient transportation, number three: freeing up space on our streets and reducing congestion, less demand for parking overall, but also lower emissions," Fiandaca said, in a phone interview.

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Zeninjor Enwemeka Twitter Reporter
Zeninjor Enwemeka is a digital reporter, covering a range of news. She also covers tech and culture as part of WBUR's Bostonomix team, which focuses on the innovation economy.

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