Maine Legislation Could Set Stage for Driverless Transit

A Portland lawmaker has introduced a bill to allow multi-passenger autonomous vehicles in the state.

by Peter McGuire, Portland Press Herald / December 20, 2017

(TNS) — A bill before the Legislature would help set the stage for putting self-driving buses on the streets of Portland and other Maine communities within the next five years.

The proposal, sparked by the Portland city manager’s interest in autonomous transit, is the first piece of Maine legislation to deal specifically with self-driving vehicles, according to Rep. Andrew McLean, D-Gorham, House chairman of the Transportation Committee.

Rep. Heather Sanborn, D-Portland, this fall sponsored L.R. 2611, which would allow towns and cities to start pilot programs in partnership with state agencies.

“There is no law that expressly prohibits self-driving vehicles, but there are many regulations that assume a driver will be behind the steering wheel or assumes it will even have a steering wheel,” Sanborn said.

The bill would allow communities to develop, test and operate pilot programs using autonomous vehicles for public transportation. Pilot programs would require a written agreement between the municipality, secretary of state, Maine Department of Transportation and Bureau of Insurance. Cities and towns would have until March 2022 to enter into such an agreement. It will likely be debated in the Legislature’s Transportation Committee during the legislative session starting in January, Sanborn said.

While the bill was sparked by interest in Portland, it would benefit the state more broadly as autonomous vehicles become more numerous, she said.

“I think it is really important that we not ignore what is coming and we make sure our laws and regulations are keeping pace,” she said.

Portland City Manager Jon Jennings agrees. He requested the bill with an eye toward someday possibly operating a driverless shuttle connecting the Portland Transportation Center with downtown and the waterfront.

“I’m a bit of a tech nerd. I really think we need to start preparing ourselves for the future so we are not constantly behind the eight ball,” Jennings said. Inrix, a transportation information company, has already had discussions with officials about mapping out the city for driverless cars, he said.

There is no pending proposal for an autonomous shuttle in Portland, but Jennings’ own research makes him think a vehicle like the Olli – a low-speed, electric, autonomous multi-passenger bus built by Arizona-based Local Motors – shows promise. An eventual proposal could involve Local Motors or another company, Jennings said.

The idea would be to connect the Portland Transportation Center at Thompson’s Point to the waterfront along Commercial Street. A shuttle could benefit tourists arriving by bus or train, but also ease downtown traffic congestion by offering additional parking space, Jennings said.

“When you start thinking about remote parking and being able to shuttle people in, the possibilities become quite intriguing,” he added. “We have transportation issues downtown and we are going to have more moving forward.”

Don’t look for self-driving buses on Portland’s streets anytime soon, however. The Olli is still undergoing tests on private courses and Local Motors doesn’t expect to start a pilot program until spring 2018, said David Woessner, general manager of the company’s National Harbor, Maryland, location.

Other communities and organizations, especially colleges and universities, have shown interest in autonomous transit vehicles like the Olli, Woessner said. Communities and organizations will get a chance to apply to be part of a pilot program, Woessner said.

The company plans to test its vehicles in Maryland, Tennessee and Arizona, near its locations, but down the line it may test in rougher environments, he added. Easymile, a French company, plans a public test of its autonomous bus in Minneapolis in February.

“I think in the 2019 timeframe, the technology and the capability could be at the point when a cold-weather test in Maine could be interesting,” said Woessner.

©2017 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.