Maine Gov. LePage Forms Panel to Examine Issues Related to Driverless Vehicles

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Maine Gov. Paul LePage took a step Jan. 17 toward regulating a rapidly emerging automotive technology that in the not-too-distant future could find self-driving cars, trucks and buses operating on Maine roads.

In an executive order issued Jan. 17, the Republican governor established the Maine Highly Automated Vehicles Advisory Committee.

“The rapid emergence of Highly Automated Vehicle technologies across the United States carries with it the promise of motor vehicles that are capable of traveling on public roadways partially or completely without the active supervision of a human operator,” LePage’s order says.

He goes on to state that public safety is his greatest concern with motor vehicles that are not driven by people. The governor tweeted that the advisory committee will “ensure coordination in addressing legal and policy issues as well as infrastructure needs related to automated vehicles.”

There are no state laws in place to regulate the operation of automated motor vehicles, LePage said. The state should oversee any potential pilot projects affecting Maine communities that may want to test automated vehicles, he said.

State Rep. Heather Sanborn of Portland last fall sponsored L.R. 2611, which would allow towns and cities to start pilot programs in partnership with state agencies. Sanborn’s bill would set the stage for putting self-driving buses on the streets of Portland within the next five years.

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Sanborn, a Democrat, said she is pleased with the governor’s action, which she said is much broader than her proposed legislation.

“It’s very encouraging because autonomous vehicles have the potential to drastically improve highway safety and save lives,” Sanborn said.

Sanborn said she would be open to broadening her legislation to conform with the governor’s order.

Under the governor’s proposal, the advisory committee would be diverse, consisting of at least 11 members, including the Maine Department of Transportation commissioner, the secretary of state, the Bureau of Insurance and the Office of Aging and Disability.

“It’s a cross agency issue with not only transportation and public safety but also insurance involved from the regulatory side, and benefits to a number of people who cannot drive, such as people with certain disabilities,” Julie Rabinowitz, a spokeswoman for the governor, said in an email.

“It’s new technology and we want to make sure that it is implemented safely,” Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said Jan. 17.

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The Secretary of State’s Office has been in regular contact with the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, a national organization that has been monitoring research and development around automated motor vehicles.

The administrators association website maintains a library of articles on topics such as changing driving laws to support autonomous vehicles, managing the transition to driverless road freight transport, and a United Kingdom-based survey of public attitudes toward driverless vehicles.

“It’s where the technology is taking us,” Dunlap said. “It could help answer a lot of questions in a rural state like Maine where people can’t drive because their license has been suspended.”

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration says on its website that a number of new motor vehicles already features automated technology such as devices that warn drivers of other vehicles behind them when backing up or that brake automatically when a vehicle in front of them slows or stops suddenly.

“The continuing evolution of automotive technology aims to deliver even greater safety benefits and automated driving systems that one day can handle the whole task of driving when we don’t want to or can’t do it ourselves,” the highway safety administration says. “Fully automated cars and trucks that drive us, instead of us driving them, will become a reality.”

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