Portland interested in possibility of self-driving buses

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PORTLAND — The wheels are turning locally and in Augusta to create pilot programs for self-driving municipal buses.

City spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said Dec. 14 the city has been approached about a self-driven shuttle service that might run from the Thompson’s Point Transportation Center to Commercial Street.

Grondin said the city been approached about starting mapping services, “a critical preliminary step,” at no cost.

Acting on a request from City Manager Jon Hennings, state Rep. Heather Sanborn on Monday filed the formal text for LD 2611, which would allow transporatation authorities to engage in limited pilot programs.

“This is not a funding bill,” Sanborn said.

Sanborn, a Democrat who represents House District 43 and last week announced her candidacy for the state Senate in District 28, presented the bill on an emergency basis for consideration in the second half of the Legislature’s 128th session.

It was approved Oct. 26 for inclusion in the upcoming session.

“This bill would allow Portland to prepare for and test how best to leverage this technology to meet our city’s transportation needs,” Jennings said in an Oct. 27 press release.

Sanborn said Local Motors, which has headquarters near Phoenix, Arizona, is showing interest in establishing a shuttle service in Portland. The company’s electrically powered “Olli” is 13 feet long, 7 feet wide, has a capacity of 2,200 pounds, top speed of 25 mph, and range of 32 miles.

Sanborn said the legislation, drafted with help from the Maine Department of Transportation and the secretary of state’s office, will be geared to allow municipalities the framework to move forward on pilot programs. 

She said there are no laws prohibiting self-driven vehicles in Maine, but the wrinkle occurs because there are “many regulations that require a driver to be in place behind a steering wheel with the ability assume control of the vehicle if needed.”

Self-driven buses have been put into service in Las Vegas and some cities in China, and at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The bus in Las Vegas was hit within the first several hours of service, an accident found to be the fault of the driver of a truck.

Local Motors’ bus doesn’t have a steering wheel. Instead, it has sensors to guide its mobility, direction and interaction with riders. It is equipped with ramps for access by riders with limited mobility.

Local Motors works with IBM for the artificial intelligence needed for vehicle operation and safety. The company also works with GE, Hewlett-Packard and French airline manufacturer Airbus, according to its website.

Google, Uber, and Tesla are also developing self-driven vehicles of all sizes. 

“By focusing only on public transit vehicles on a pilot project scale, this bill would allow us to wade cautiously into the area of self-driving vehicles without having to solve all of the regulatory questions that might arise around self-driving passenger cars,” Sanborn said in a press release.

There are questions about how feasible the technology will be in Maine, she added, including how well the buses would work in a colder climate with winter storms.

“Nobody has applied to do this,” Sanborn said. “What we will try and do is give an authority the room to try and figure it out.” 

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

The Olli self-driven shuttle bus by Arizona-based Local Motors.

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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.
  • “The reigning fantasy of Musk’s argument is that we must always “take people all the way to their destination.” To do this we must abolish the need to ever change vehicles — from a train to a bus, from a car to a train, from a bus to a bike — and of course we also abolish walking. This implies a vision in which buses are shrunk into something like taxis, because a vehicle going directly from your exact origin to your exact destination at your chosen time won’t be useful to many people other than you.

    So a bus with 4o people on it today is blown apart into, what, little driverless vans with an average of two each, a 20-fold increase in the number of vehicles? It doesn’t matter if they’re electric or driverless. Where will they all fit in the urban street? And when they take over, what room will be left for wider sidewalks, bike lanes, pocket parks, or indeed anything but a vast river of vehicles?”

    “Smart cities aren’t just the ones that chase the latest technology fads. They’re the ones that think carefully about the spatial, geometric problem that a dense city is. Because if it doesn’t work geometrically, it doesn’t work.” Jarret Walker