Rethinking self-driving cars in rural areas

By Derek Pankratz

I have a confession to make. Although I spend much of my professional life thinking about how new types of mobility can reshape urban areas, I live in the sticks. The rural upper Midwest, to be precise, on “10 acres of brush and trouble,” in the words of singer-songwriter Greg Brown.

Much of the discussion of trends in ridesharing, autonomous and electric vehicles, and beyond has focused on the possibilities these technologies hold for remaking transit in cities. Deloitte’s own research has explored mobility-as-a-service centered on an urban intermodal mobility ecosystem. And rightly so. As the world’s population grows increasingly urban, the challenges posed by congestion, pollution, and ensuring equitable access to transportation are likely to become more acute and pressing.

But areas outside of cities could also reap important benefits from the future of mobility, and many possess characteristics that might make them amenable to early-stage adoption. (Of course, this is a generalization. “Rural” constitutes many millions of Americans and nearly three-quarters of the country’s landmass; the diversity therein is considerable.)

While challenges like congestion and parking are less of an issue, rural areas often face their own mobility-related difficulties that could be addressed by autonomous vehicles. In 2013, less than 20 percent of the US population lived in a rural area, but rural fatalities accounted for more than half of all traffic fatalities. The fatality rate per 100 million miles travelled was two-and-half times greater in rural versus urban settings, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. If the safety promises of self-driving cars are realized, those numbers could plunge dramatically.

Or consider a perhaps more prosaic problem: collisions with large animals. Between one and two million such accidents occur every year, killing near as many animals and costing an estimated $8.4 billion, according to the Federal Highway Administration. I’ve lost track of the number of near-misses I’ve had with whitetail deer, although—touch wood—I’ve yet to have a serious collision. Autonomous vehicles, which never fatigue and whose sensors could offer superior night driving capabilities, could avert many of these crashes.

For companies developing self-driving technologies, rural areas offer a number of advantages, especially for early-stage testing. In general, they present simpler driving conditions than dense urban environments: less traffic, fewer intersections, minimal pedestrians and bikes. At the same time, they can provide conditions not easily replicated in cities, like relatively high-speed driving and interacting with slow-moving, non-traditional vehicles like tractors and even horse-drawn carriages. The result is more and more diverse data to improve the capabilities of the algorithms that power autonomous vehicles. For the communities open to such testing, it could provide a welcome source of investment.

Of course, there are limitations. Low population densities and long median travel distances mean ridesharing and carsharing are unlikely to ever take hold as they have in urban areas, meaning personal vehicle ownership (and lower asset utilization) are likely to persist. And the vision of some pioneering companies of a vehicle that can only operate in fully autonomous mode—with no steering wheel or pedals, for instance—could meet resistance from country dwellers who often use their vehicles as a tool as much as a conveyance. For those who, say, use their pickup truck to haul firewood from one part of a property to another, as I have in recent months, the ability to revert to human-controlled operation is likely to be essential.

Sometimes the forces shaping the future of mobility seem a thousand miles away from my home, literally and figuratively. But it needn’t be so. Companies aiming to make autonomous vehicles a reality might look again at rural areas and find important advantages. And for the counties, villages, and townships that comprise rural America, welcoming new technologies and providing a test bed for the future of mobility could result in safer and more prosperous communities.

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