Portland is trying to put itself on the map of the emerging self-driving vehicle industry.

Maine’s biggest city is one of seven places selected for a pilot project to test new software that maps out local traffic rules and restrictions for autonomous vehicles. There are no self-driving vehicle companies operating in Portland yet, but officials hope inclusion in the pilot program will give the city a leg up in attracting those companies.

The software platform, called AV Road Rules, was announced Tuesday by INRIX, a Kirkland, Washington-based transportation technology firm.

“I think this is a transformational announcement,” City Manager Jon Jennings said in an interview. “This has a lot to do with future economic development in the city.”

Jennings has championed the idea of self-driving shuttles to relieve downtown congestion.

AV Road Rules is intended to function as a guidebook that helps self-driving vehicles “see” local road conditions like school zones, speed limits, stop and yield signs, one-way streets and crosswalks.

“For 100 years, we have communicated traffic rules and restrictions to drivers using signs and road striping,” but robots have to be taught all those physical signals, just like they have to be taught the difference between a human and a fire hydrant, said Avery Ash, head of autonomous mobility at INRIX.

Teaching self-driving cars the local regulations using cameras, sensors, third-party datasets and human technicians takes a lot of time and resources, and it’s also imprecise, which increases the risk that a self-driving car will speed, run a stop sign or blow through a crosswalk.

The program INRIX designed is a shortcut, giving vehicle operators a digital map that lays out traffic restrictions designated by local authorities. Operators can plug that information into a self-driving vehicle before testing it on public roads.

“When an operator is looking for the next market, Portland is set apart from its peers by having this digital resource to help speed the deployment for safe operation and testing on public roads,” Ash said. “It helps create a degree of certainty that didn’t previously exist.”

He said by having these digitized rules, it will help self-driving car companies get into the market and know they are going to operate safely.

Officials can manage the program to add temporary restrictions, such as construction-related traffic changes, Ash said. Future versions may have the capability to adjust for seasonal conditions like snow removal.

Six other cities and road agencies were selected for the pilot project: Boston; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Austin, Texas; the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada, which includes Las Vegas; Transport for West Midlands, including Birmingham, England, and Transport Scotland.

Several companies testing self-driving vehicles, including Jaguar Land Rover, have signed up to use the program, Ash said.

INRIX hopes to have two dozen cities and agencies using AV Road Rules by the end of 2018.

Portland will focus initial mapping on Commercial Street and Franklin Street, heavily used transportation corridors into the Old Port and downtown Portland, Jennings said.

Jennings has envisioned autonomous shuttles that could collect visitors and commuters from remote parking areas and carry them into the city, reducing traffic congestion and parking pressure.

“We don’t want to aggravate the downtown with more traffic and congestion, I think it is a win-win,” he said.

Jennings has suggested that a vehicle like Olli, a low-speed electric passenger bus developed by Arizona-based Local Motors, could fit the bill for Portland. Last year, the city pushed a bill in the Legislature to allow communities to develop, test and operate self-driving public transit vehicles as a pilot program. The bill was changed to create a state-level committee to examine self-driving vehicles in Maine.

Local Motors did not respond to an email asking if it planned to test its shuttle in Portland.

More than 70 cities around the world are piloting self-driving vehicle tests or plan to do so soon, according to a survey by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Aspen Institute.

Road agencies appear to have a strong appetite to try out autonomous vehicles for a number of purposes despite reports of people being hurt or killed in self-driving car collisions, including a March incident in which a pedestrian was killed by a self-driving Uber vehicle in Tempe, Arizona. A federal investigation into that crash found the vehicle was not programed to emergency brake for the pedestrian who was crossing a poorly lit street in dark clothing at night. In the aftermath, Uber was banned from operating in Arizona and shut down its self-driving car program, at least temporarily.

Jennings says news stories about injuries and fatalities during autonomous vehicle tests have given people the wrong impression about the technology.

“It makes it seem like they are unsafe, I personally think self-driving is much safer than human-driving,” he said.

More broadly, participation in the INRIX pilot project is part of the city’s push to become a hub for high-tech and knowledge industries, Jennings added. That push includes municipal tech investments such as LED streetlights and traffic-measuring stoplights.

“As we become much better known as an innovation hub, and not just as a tourist destination and foodie capital, we can begin to attract some of these companies that are in the innovation sector to Portland,” Jennings said.

“This will mean even greater growth and the introduction of 21st-century jobs opportunities.”

Peter McGuire can be reached at 791-6325 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: PeteL_McGuire

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