Cars of the future are being perfected right here

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BOSTON – While Silicon Valley is almost synonymous with anything tech-related, Greater Boston is carving out a niche for itself in tech innovations for the cars of the future.  Several large projects and companies working on making self-driving cars a thing of the present call Beantown home. And Woburn-based Terrafugia is taking flying cars out of the pages of science fiction and into reality.

Autonomous vehicles (or self-driving cars), while technologically feasible at this time, still leave a lot of questions unanswered. For example, how does an autonomous vehicle know when to brake for a pedestrian who steps into the street?

Massachusetts researchers are working to answer this question, and many others, to bring self-driving cars out of the closed course and onto the streets. To some, this prospect may appear to be decades down the road, yet many cars already have partially automated features, such as self parking.

Auto giant Toyota recently announced a five-year, $1 billion research investment in self-driving cars, split between researchers in Palo Alto and Cambridge, according to Shira Schoenberg of  The research project is led by Gill Pratt, a former professor at Olin College of Engineering in Needham, who is working with researchers from MIT and Olin College.

Schoenberg reports that professors at UMass Amherst are working on creating a mechanism to transfer control from an automated driving system to a human driver in a semi-autonomous car. The UMass project is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation and General Motors.

Cambridge start-up nuTonomy, Autoliv Electronics in Lowell, and Amazon Robotics in North Reading are also working on autonomous-vehicle  technology.

A former U.S. Army base in Massachusetts is even being considered as a potential testing course for autonomous vehicles before they make it onto the streets. As the number of Massachusetts-based companies creating technology for these self-driving cars grows, state officials will have to decide if this tech innovation is something they want to encourage, and if so, how to regulate the new technology coming out of the labs and onto the roads. State law currently requires that cars must be operated by a human – meaning self-driving cars are not legal in the state at this time.

But it isn’t only the occupants of Boston’s streets that may be changing.  Terrafugia has built a car-helicopter hybrid called the Transition, which can fly up to 115 miles-per-hour and runs on unleaded gasoline rather than jet fuel.

Currently, these flying cars go for $279,000, but CEO and engineer Carl Dietrich hopes to drop the price to something similar to a luxury car once the Transition and its successors enter the market in greater numbers.

In January of this year, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) asked Terrafugia, along with Boeing and others, to help develop federal guidelines for air traffic management and aviation infrastructure as new kinds of vehicles enter the air.

Flying cars have been intriguing inventors and engineers since after World War II, and while vehicles with flying and driving capabilities have been built, there are a few barriers to their permeating the market as smart phones did.

First, Terrafugia’s Transition isn’t exactly a flying car. They call it a “roadable aircraft,” meaning it is primarily meant to be flown, but could also drive short distances. Then there’s the question of safety and noise. As inventor Elon Musk told the Independent, a British publication, “The hard part is, how do you make a flying car that’s super safe and quiet? Because if it’s a howler, you’re going to make people very unhappy.”

While flying cars may never be as ubiquitous as the automobile, autonomous vehicles may make human drivers obsolete. As Roger Matus, a vice president at Boston-based tech company Neurala, told Schoenberg, “The real question that a lot of people are asking is, ‘In 50 years, will you be allowed to drive your own car?’”

Contact Lizze Short at [email protected] or on Twitter @lizzietheshort