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Self-Driving Steered to Devens

Industry gets up to speed

April 28, 2016 : Boston Herald, by Jordan Graham

A handful of companies already are in discussions with officials to test self-driving cars in the Bay State — the first fruits borne from the state’s push to attract research and testing for autonomous vehicles.

“Within the next few weeks, they’ll be testing,” said Thatcher Kezer, senior vice president of Devens for MassDevelopment.

Kezer said four companies are working through paperwork that will allow them to test on 80 acres of former Army housing on the decommissioned base. Kezer declined to name the companies, but said one is testing a car, while another is testing sensors that will eventually be used in self-driving cars.

At a meeting hosted by state economic development and transportation officials yesterday, many in the burgeoning self-driving car industry urged the state to embrace what makes it unique: loads of talent, cutting-edge research institutions and even bad weather and bad drivers.

“It could be an ideal test bed, maybe a worst-case scenario (test). If your vehicle can drive in Massachusetts,” it can drive anywhere, said Ryan Harrington, chief of the Technology Policy and Innovation Division at the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center. “Market the challenging and complicated driving that happens here.”

James Pippine, an adviser at the new Toyota Research Institute in Cambridge, said car makers will be looking to cities and states to fine tune software and algorithms.

“What people are looking for is real good data in congested cities,” he said. “The driver here is erratic, that’s something we’re seriously looking at. You’re going to have to program cars differently for Boston, for Denver.”

The meeting comes after months of trying to get the nearly 100 engineers and executives in a room with Secretary of Economic Development Jay Ash and Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack after the meeting was snowed out in February.

Companies at the meeting included GM, Volkswagen, Lyft, Zipcar and automaker trade associations.

The state will now try to craft a way forward to encourage more testing and eventually deployment of self-driving cars.

The self-driving industry is in the midst of a “space race,” said John Leonard, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

“To make these systems a reality, it’s the software, it’s the algorithmic part, things that Massachusetts is really good at,” Leonard said. “We need to make sure the technology development happens here.”

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