Down the road, Portland eyes tests of highly automated vehicles

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PORTLAND — It may not be imminent, but City Manager Jon Jennings sees highly automated vehicles in the city’s transportation future.

With the city participating in a pilot project with the consulting firm INRIX to map the features, contours, signals and signs along Franklin and Commercial streets, Jennings in a public forum held Sept. 27 at the East End Community School said it is possible HAVs could be tested as shuttles within two years.

The vehicles by definition “perform all the tasks of driving without requiring human attention,” according to Avery Ash, head of autonomous mobility for INRIX. 

Ash reviewed the basic glossary of terms related to the industry and vehicles he said are coming to the marketplace, while additional forum speakers also outlined the benefits, challenges and practicalities of vehicles that operate without drivers along predetermined routes.

“Thinking of this technology as a race is not particularly helpful,” Ash said.

Jennings said the city is interested in using highly automated vehicles to alleviate traffic congestion and parking problems along Franklin and Commercial streets, especially as development continues.

Portland is one of five cities nationally and two internationally that are taking part in the pilot project. Once the mapping to provide the working platform for any vehicle is done later this year, Jennings said a request for proposals from operators may follow.

Kris Carter, a co-chair of Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, said Boston is already implementing the use of “electric and shared” vehicles in areas of South Boston.

The program is tiered and can expand as certain benchmarks for operations are met. Carter said the vehicles could not only alleviate traffic woes as the city’s population increases, they can also address the widening gap in incomes by providing reliable, low-cost transportation.

With two companies now testing vehicles, Carter said one of the biggest challenges came from South Boston’s seagull population, because birds in the road have caused the shuttles to shut down.

Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette, a former government affairs specialist on autonomous vehicles from the National Federation of the Blind, said the vehicles also brought more opportunities for people with disabilities to get around and urged Jennings to seek input from them and elderly residents for testing and use.

Ash, John Branding of BMW Group and AAA of Northern New England’s Patrick Moody also saw the potential for safer vehicles on city streets because of technological advances and design.

Moody said technology, including onboard cameras and sensors, is now designed to help prevent crashes, as opposed to protecting people in the event of crashes.

Jennings also conceded truck traffic and pedestrians crossing pose specific challenges on Franklin and Commercial streets.

“That is why we fundamentally have to transform Commercial Street,” he said.

No one on the panel expected a completely automated transportation future.

“Human drivers will not be replaced anytime soon,” Ash said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Avery Ash of INRIX, which is mapping Franklin and Commercial streets to program highly automated vehicles, explains terminologies Sept. 27 at a Portland forum.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.