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

Maine’s biggest city is one of seven municipalities and transit agencies selected as pilot members for a new program aiming to communicate local traffic rules and restrictions to autonomous vehicles.

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

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

Portland hopes its inclusion in the program pilot will help attract autonomous vehicle companies and grow the city as a hub for technology and knowledge industries. City staff will use the software to input local traffic rules and geospatial elements that can be accessed by autonomous vehicles.

“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.

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INRIX intends to give autonomous vehicles a guidebook to local road conditions, like school zones, crosswalks, making it safer and easier to deploy those vehicles on public roads. Robot cars can also communicate problems, like a pot hole, back to local authorities through the program, according in INRIX.

“For 100 years, we have communicated traffic rules and restrictions to drivers using signs and road striping,” said Avery Ash, head of autonomous mobility at INRIX.

Physical signs are OK for human drivers, but robots have to be taught how to recognize and interpret those signals, and how to interact with other vehicles, humans and road environment by using cameras, sensors and a team of human operators and technicians.

That makes the machine learning process time-consuming and resource-intensive.

“The vehicle operator will ride along to do the same route over and over again, so the vehicle knows it,” he said. It’s also imprecise, compared to a human driver’s knowledge of local road rules and conditions.

“At the end of the day, it still operates on a confidence interval,” Ash said. “You are still not getting the direct ground-truth information the city or road operator knows.”

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AV Road Rules gives autonomous vehicles a leg up by making digitized local rules and road conditions available for upload so it already understands them before being deployed in a community.

“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.”

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

Pilot cities run the gamut, from places like Portland and Transport Scotland, that don’t have autonomous vehicle testing currently, to Boston, where three operators are already testing on public streets, Ash said.

Portland intends to focus initial mapping on Commercial Street and Franklin Street, Jennings said. The two streets are heavily used transport corridors into the Old Port and downtown Portland. Jennings envisions autonomous shuttles that could collect visitors and commuters from remote parking areas and whisk them into the city, reducing traffic congestion and parking pressure. No autonomous vehicle company is now operating in Portland.

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

 

Staff photo by John Patriquin
Thursday, Febuary, 1, 2007. Traffic on outer Congress Street. in Portland.

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