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Massachusetts Seeks to Become Autonomous Vehicle Research, Testing Hub

Industry leaders and state officials will begin talks on Feb. 9th to discuses the best way to introduce self-driving vehicles that doesn't hinder innovation and protects Massachusetts residents.

(TNS) -- Massachusetts is aiming to become a hub of research and testing for self-driving cars — and play a major role in manufacturing — a campaign it is kicking off with a private powwow next month with some of the leaders of the rapidly evolving industry.

Officials from the state Office of Housing and Economic Development and Department of Transportation have invited reps from industry leaders, including Google, Tesla, MIT, Toyota, Audi and Uber, to sit down Feb. 9 and discuss how to attract companies and researchers, and get self-driving cars on the road legally.

“This is not the kind of technology you can test in a room, in an office, you really need to put the vehicles on the road,” said Daniela Rus, director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT.

“Without a legal framework to do experimental work, we are going to fall behind, and we’re not going to be able to compete in this really hot and exciting space.”

Even before the state stepped in, Massachusetts has attracted big-name companies hoping to develop self-driving cars.

Toyota is close to opening a $50 million research facility in partnership with MIT that will be led by Rus, and Audi has signed an agreement with Somerville to test self-parking cars, which drive themselves to a spot after dropping off the driver.

“To have such a world industry leader, Audi, testing their new ideas here in Somerville is a powerful thing for us,” Somerville Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone said, adding he hopes for a permanent research lab or manufacturing facility in the city.

Boston’s Chief of Streets Chris Osgood expects self-driving cars would free up urban space, reduce crashes and cut emissions. The city has applied for a $50 million grant from the federal Department of Transportation to help integrate self-driving cars and other technologies into the city.

“Autonomous vehicles are part of the equation,” Osgood said. “It’s about finding a way that autonomous vehicles can fit with pedestrians, fit with cyclists.”

The state plans to argue that Massachusetts is uniquely positioned to be the center of the self-driving universe, thanks to top research universities, tech talent at startups, an innovation-friendly government, and perhaps most importantly, poor weather that will provide real-world conditions.

Rus has been working on self-driving cars since 2010, but has been traveling to Singapore to test them. One of the state’s early ideas is to set up a testing facility in Devens before the cars hit the public roads.

“We believe we have the type of research institutions in Massachusetts that can really advance this technology,” said Paul McMorrow, a state ?economic development spokesman. “We know if we get this right, it could unlock economic development.”

©2016 the Boston Herald Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.