MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA – In a series of preemptive safe-driving sorties, a coalition of technical experts from federal and private sources, including Google and Toyota, have been testing hands-free cars in northern California’s mountains and valleys.

Google’s self-driving Lexus.

The highly secretive road tests of “self-driving cars” have been embraced as essential information in an extended fact-finding project endorsed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Agency (NHTSA), which is seeking to reduce annual U.S. road-accident fatalities averaging about 100,000 persons a year.

The 2-year old project also is being watched by states, which need to legalize operation of hands-fee vehicles. So far the only states to do so have enacted laws which stipulate that self-driving cars must be clearly marked as such. They are NV, CA, FL and DC. MI and WI have rejected driverless bills.

The New Yorker Magazine Nov. 25 edition devoted 14 pages of copy and art to the “hands-free” story, in which team members spelled out their concerns. A Google X engineer, Tony Levandowski, was piloting a Lexus through most of the project, with a Prius also involved.

Levandowski, somewhat defensively, denied charges that hands-free cars were still too risky and accident-prone “People think we’re going to pry a self-driving car from their cold dead hands,” he said “Someday soon… a self-driving car will save your life.”

Google team members have avidly testified for legalization of the new system, which was highly visible at the Los Angeles Auto show in many exhibits along with the electric cars.

The 900,000 show visitors were stirred up at the LA Convention Center by the proliferation of new technologies, not least hands-free operation.

A second expert on hands-free operation is Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, which co-developed autonomous motorcycles and tanks for the U.S. military.

The project has taken on a global flavor, with engineers on board from Belgium, Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, France, Germany, China and Russia.

Among typical “supercars” at the show, Audi’s sparkling A8 sedan, joined by the snazzy S8, are upscale sedans rated at 520hp and priced from $112,000. Volkswagen’s priciest models are a real challenge, says the LA Times. “The S8 is the ultimate aspirational Audi sedan,” it adds.

Finally, BMW weighs in with its i3 Pavilion, due at dealers next spring, a 5-door compact – as modernistic in construction as one can imagine – a challenge in the MINI, Cruze, Civic, Fusion and Accord electric-car market.

As yet unpriced, the BMW “Beemer could be an e-car market medalist again and again,“ with the LA Times calling it “the definitive modern mobility machine,” a $15,000 knockout?