Self-driving cars may bring bigger changes for Maine than stress-free rides to work. Richard Corey, Ph.D. headed a virtual roundtable discussion on autonomous vehicles on April 14. The Q&A session with the University of Maine’s VEMI Lab was part of Maine Impact Week, an opportunity for UMaine students and faculty to share and celebrate recent leaps and bounds in research with the public through seminars and workshops.

Corey was joined on Wednesday by colleagues Nicholas Giudice, Ph.D., Jonathan Rubin, Ph.D., Katherine Freund from ITNAmerica, Dale Peabody from the Maine State DOT and Eric Dibner with the Maine State Americans with Disabilities Act. The group is on board with autonomous vehicles for Maine, and explained some of the perks to the audience. Rubin believes that autonomous vehicles are going to change as we know it. 

“Autonomous cars will have a huge effect on where people choose to live and work because it lowers the cost of time,”  Rubin said. “It will likely have a profound effect on Maine settlement patterns.”

It is easy to agree that time is money, and for a lot of people, the amount of time they spend commuting whether it be to work or school is a huge factor in their daily lives. Many people, especially those involved in the VEMI Lab’s research, believe that autonomous vehicles have the potential to revitalize rural areas in Maine and maybe even boost the economy. 

“Not only is there potential for fuel savings,”  Peabody said. “But there will also be more mobility on highways and less traffic.” 

Reasons for living in populated areas will become obsolete as travel becomes more accessible to everyone, especially older adults.

Although some older adults are having a hard time with the idea of getting in a car that drives itself, activist for alternative senior transportation, Katherine Freund, is confident that the concept will grow on people. 

“Old people are afraid of it and don’t want to do it, but do I think they are going to? Yes,” Freund said. “Freedom just about overrides everything.”

However, there is concern that fear will be too great of a factor for some people to overcome.

“For  [authonomous vehicles] to really be possible, we have to make them more trusted and understood,” Giudice said. The hope is that with growing accessibility to dialogue about autonomous vehicles, they will become less feared and more popular.

Currently, vehicle technology is ahead of policy in Maine, but Peabody and Dibner said there is plenty of time for catch-up. 

“Changing things like making traffic signals so they would connect to vehicles through Bluetooth are the changes we will need to make once we get the go-ahead,” Peabody said.

Autonomous vehicles might be closer in Maine’s future than originally thought as some speculate that autonomous vehicles will gain momentum by 2028, a mere seven years away. 

“Electric vehicles are expected to reach a turning point in 2024,” Peabody said. [Autonomous vehicles] can’t be far behind.”

Overall, the consensus from the discussion is that autonomous vehicles could do a lot of good for Maine both economically and socially, especially regarding older adults and those with disabilities. However, the question remains: when?

“Some people say a few years, while others say 40-50 years, but everyone is agreeing that it will happen at some point,”  Dibner said. “And that is what’s important.”