Deployment Manager Jason Peres, center, explains how Relay, an electric autonomous vehicle, works to new riders in Fairfax, Va., Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020. Credit: Jacqueline Martin / AP

Paul Fink is a graduate research assistant at the University of Maine. This column reflects his views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university. He is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the Bangor Daily News every other week.

Maine’s demographic profile is often presented as a challenge for the state. These demographics, however, make Maine uniquely positioned to be a national leader for autonomous vehicle research and deployment. We are both the oldest state and the most rural state in the country, meaning the benefits of self-driving cars will be especially impactful for Mainers from Kittery to Fort Kent.

With the state’s Commision on Autonomous Vehicles tasked with issuing a final report this month, now is the time to consider opportunities to capitalize on the growing research, development and policy efforts in the state.

Self-driving cars will save over 30,000 lives per year in the United States and significantly increase the quality of life for those who don’t drive, including the nearly 25 million people reporting a travel-limiting disability and the 600,000 older adults who stop driving every year. As such, the new mobility resulting from self-driving cars will be especially helpful for Maine’s older adults, many of whom stop driving every year.

Older adults in Maine often need to rely on family and friends to access medical appointments, social engagements and other services important to quality of life. Although buses and ride services are also an option, let’s face it, we’re not exactly known for a robust public transit system that adequately meets people’s needs throughout the state. COVID-19 has made this problem worse, with busing schedules reduced and important programs like Meals on Wheels needing drivers now more than ever.  Driverless cars will be an obvious solution that we should embrace with open arms, but reluctance persists despite the benefits.

A series of public meetings on self-driving cars revealed that opinions about self-driving cars vary throughout the state, ranging from “the sooner the better” to “not in my town” and “the police are already overburdened.” This trend is consistent with national findings, where only 14 percent of people say they would fully trust riding in a car without a driver. It is clear that there is further need for local partnerships, outreach and community participation.  

One approach is being spearheaded by the University of Maine’s VEMI Lab, which recently received a $500,000 National Science Foundation research grant to study autonomous vehicle trust. Members of VEMI’s Autonomous Vehicle Research Group are also competing in the Inclusive Design Challenge, a U.S. Department of Transportation project aimed at improving accessibility in autonomous vehicles. VEMI’s solution involves improving access to autonomous vehicles for people with visual impairments, which will have widespread benefits for the transportation needs of older adults in Maine.

With ongoing autonomous vehicle research happening right here in Maine, the state would be wise to consider new ways to partner with outreach efforts. Again, for example, the VEMI Lab is finalizing a massive autonomous vehicle simulator that will give people the chance to experience what riding in a self-driving car feels like. I believe programs to expand pilot projects like this would undoubtedly help assuage people’s concerns while also furthering Maine as a technology and business leader in an emerging, transformative industry.

Once again, Maine’s legislative session is underway and much of the debate this year will consider how to spend more than $800 million in expected excess revenue between now and 2023. Combined with the nearly $2.4 billion in federal infrastructure funds, of which at least $19 million will be used to expand electric vehicle charging stations, legislators can and should consider how to engage the public through autonomous vehicle related outreach and how to attract more autonomous vehicle partnerships and pilot projects. By doing so, Maine can become a leader in self-driving technology with life-changing impacts for rural mobility, aging in place and transit for older adults.