It’s no secret that our state is inhospitable – to put it mildly – to business. Our citizens face one of the highest tax burdens in the entire nation and we impose a maze of regulations that make it difficult to earn a living in Maine.
Why then would we pursue legislation that further weakens our competitiveness by banning emerging technologies that are innovating the way we do business? The state and its many subdivisions have already taken action against (or are actively exploring ways to take action against) sharing economy platforms. Next on the list is autonomous vehicle technology.
A bill submitted this legislative session would prohibit the operation of driverless commercial vehicles in Maine. LD 844, sponsored by Rep. Sherman Hutchins, plainly reads, “A person may not operate on a public way a commercial motor vehicle unless the person is the driver and is in the vehicle during operation.”
To put it simply, there is no evidence that a broad prohibition on driverless commercial vehicles is needed to protect public safety, and such a ban would significantly impair Maine’s competitiveness in the years ahead as autonomous vehicles revolutionize surface transportation.
Last year, the legislature created the Commission on Autonomous Vehicles to “coordinate efforts among state agencies and knowledgeable stakeholders to inform the development of a process to allow an autonomous vehicle tester to demonstrate and deploy for testing purposes an automated driving system on a public way.” The work of that commission is ongoing and its final report may not be released until January 2022.
Also in 2018, former Governor Paul LePage created the Maine Highly Automated Vehicles (HAV) Advisory Committee to oversee the beneficial introduction of HAV technologies to Maine and to assess, develop and implement recommendations regarding potential pilot projects initiated to advance these technologies.
With these two bodies studying the complex issues surrounding the impact of driverless vehicles, it would be premature to impose a blanket ban on driverless commercial vehicles, particularly when you consider the strides this technology has made in recent years and the speed at which other states are moving to capitalize on this opportunity.
Applying autonomous technology to long-distance trucking may be particularly fruitful, helping to substantially reduce highway accidents, save fuel and move freight more reliably. For example, although drivers must maintain an appropriate following distance from other vehicles in order to react to changes in speed or road conditions, with wireless communication, a line of autonomous trucks can accelerate and brake over much shorter distances.
As noted by the Brookings Institution, “Closer following distances in a truck platoon lowers air resistance on the following vehicles, with fuel savings that add up quickly for multiple trucks hauling cargo over long distances. The popularity of platooning laws suggests a wider focus on commercial applications of autonomous vehicle technology on the state level.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, no other state has enacted a bill similar to LD 844, and many have specifically amended their laws to permit experimentation with truck platooning.
More than most states, Maine’s communities – 84.4 percent of them, in fact – rely on trucks to move their goods. Safer, faster, cheaper and more efficient trucking, made possible by autonomous systems, will deliver significant benefits to consumers and producers in our state.
In addition, autonomous vehicle technology has an exceptional safety record, and experts expect broader adoption of these vehicles to dramatically reduce motor vehicle crashes and traffic deaths. According to the NHTSA:
“Automated vehicles’ potential to save lives and reduce injuries is rooted in one critical and tragic fact: 94 percent of serious crashes are due to human error. Automated vehicles have the potential to remove human error from the crash equation, which will help protect drivers and passengers, as well as bicyclists and pedestrians.”
Driverless commercial vehicles hold great promise for the future of our state. It would be foolish for Maine to outlaw the use of this technology while other states continue to explore its full economic potential.