The future is never as far away as we think. When it comes to self-driving vehicles, the future is already here.

That’s why we were happy to hear that Maine Legislature will be taking up a bill to give cities and towns the legal framework they need to participate in pilot programs for autonomous buses.

A logical first step would be the Portland waterfront, where traffic slows to a crawl during high demand times of year as diners and shoppers hunt for parking. But other Maine communities could also benefit from a flexible, low-cost public transit option to move people at busy times.

That might sound like an idea for another time, a time far into the future. But the day when fully autonomous vehicles are on the road is not as far off as many might think.

There are cars on the road right now that can park themsleves, control speed and even steer autonomously. Ford Motor Co. recently announced that it’s devoting its Detroit manufacturing facility to building a fully self-driving car. The company plans to have it ready in 2021, in less than four years.

The ride-hailing app Uber has clocked more than 1 million autonomous miles over the last year, with a fleet in three cities, including the icy, potholed streets of Pittsburgh.


As the technology takes hold, it’s easy to see how it could change city life. If they can get a ride whenever they need one, fewer people will want to drive and store their own cars. That means less need for parking, and smoother flowing traffic.

It could also change the economics of affordable housing. Right now, the places with the most jobs — say Portland’s Old Port or the neighborhood around Maine Medical Center — are some of the most expensive places to live. Housing is less expensive outside the city, but only if you can afford to own and operate a car. Lowering transportation costs for people getting to work is effectively lowering housing costs.

The problems with integrating antonymous vehicles to our streets may end up being more about culture than technology. Some people say they will never feel safe in a robot-driven vehicle, but some people said that about horseless carriages and airplanes. Everyone needs to remember that autonomous vehicles will never read a text message, apply makeup or get behind the wheel drunk the way humans do every day. The vehicles also won’t speed, disobey traffic signals or have explode with road rage.

It’s going to take time to fully introduce this technology, but it’s not too early for the Legislature to start laying the ground work for the next era of transportation.

Autonomous vehicles are going to be part of our future. And the future is just about here.

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