Mitch Turck


Playing In The Sticks: Self-Driving Cars And Rural America

While it’s often easy — and admittedly, fun — to highlight the hypocrisy of rural America when it clamors “what about us?”, there’s little benefit and even less dignity in skirting an opportunity to build smarter solutions for all.

Autonomous transportation is a worthwhile example: sure, the concept makes undeniable sense in urban environments, but can we — and further, should we — entrench such technology out in the boonies, where edge cases abound and mechanical tools still win the day over digital solutions because, when the chips are down, you can always turn a wrench and maintain that trademarked rural self-reliance?

“When the chips are down.” Come on, that was good.

I’ll take up a few positions in this article, hoping readers will use their own experience to nurture some initiative; we should seek to surface actionable challenges for the dweebs of Silicon Valley, and at the same time, broaden perspectives for those who have dug their heels deep into the Great Plains.

To paint a consistent picture of the battleground, I’ve created a map to call out some of the typical rural road layouts and driving scenarios. Now, you fine country folk will have to forgive me for any egregious omissions… I’ve seen more of America than most, but I’m a city slicker for sure.

Alright, let’s hit the hay.

This Ain’t Our First Rodeo

For as night-and-day as they seem, separating the cityscape from the countryside has never been a simple debate.

Sure, the rugged individualists of the 19th and 20th centuries toiled long and hard to build up farmland, but it was central government who made that land available with the Homestead Act. That said, the law intended to bring settlement to undeveloped land, so while countrymen benefitted, the Homestead Act certainly wasn’t done without an economic motive.

And yes, the backroads of America wouldn’t have electricity or plumbing or trains or roads without big city dollars footing much of the infrastructure cost… but then again, most of the raw materials for such inventions, and the commerce resulting from them, traverse broad stretches of countryside. From that perspective, laying down rail and road transit to connect cities is hardly an altruistic favor to rural residents… and yet, so much of small town America exists only because of the obvious potential identified in siphoning off a few of the commercial dollars passing between major destinations.

Point is, it’s naive for urbanites to dismiss rural areas as relics (the people, perhaps, are relics, but not the areas)… and in the same stroke, it’s foolish for country folk to pretend they don’t benefit from cities, or the improving living standards that come with them. The balance is delicate, requiring mutual respect and consideration — unless you claim to be one of the true mountain men living off the land, in which case you’re a phony, because you obviously have internet access if you’re reading this.

Evolve Or Be Extinguished

Counterpoint: the boonies will go as the cities go, because the masses dictate the markets. Refuse transportation tech all you like, but if gas hits $40/gallon because the government has banned internal combustion engines, or insurance companies start demanding real-time data monitoring, or the suppliers who make parts for your car go belly-up, it really won’t matter what you think. You won’t have the means to be contrarian.

You, grizzled countryman, imagine a future where you’re constantly asked by your friendly car dealer, “hey buddy, wanna get outta that rust bucket and into the shiny new self-driving model?” And with the steely, distant resolve of a cowboy who has seen it all, you run your hand along the fender of your ’83 Bronco and reply, “not now. Not ever.” Well, snap out of it. That’s not the way it’s gonna go down. Don’t find out the hard way… come to the table with some ideas to support the transition and ensure your needs are considered.

You Don’t See That Every Day

A Chevy Silverado rolling coal in your face as it kicks up dust and rocks. An ATV towing another ATV. An elderly man approaching your vehicle with a shotgun. A street sign pointing you into a ravine. A couch in the middle of the road with birds on it. Any wild animal doing anything. These are just some of the things I’ve seen in rural areas that might give current-day self-driving tech a bout of confusion; what’s worse, the events happen so rarely that solving for such edge cases seems like an immense waste of resources.

But, at least in theory, environments increasingly take on this persona as one separates from civilization. I mean that’s pretty much what civilization aims to do: mitigate life’s unpredictable events in order to increase control. But spend enough time in the boonies, and you’ll find hours upon hours of inactivity peppered with an occasional event you’ve never seen before.

Given how resource-intensive it would be to approach these edge cases individually, I’d recommend a fairly blunt solution that I hope folks of the heartland can appreciate: put weapons on AVs.

I know I like to satirize this concept, but it’s my idea and I’m actually quite fond of it — especially in rural scenarios. Throwing long-range acoustic devices (LRAD) on autonomous vehicles is by far the most practical solution for any problem on four legs, and considering how much of self-driving tech is likely to be electric (i.e. silent), having a tool that basically amounts to a smart horn is vital when barreling through a village that maybe sees or hears one car every ten minutes.

Crossing The Border

There are a lot of unorthodox vehicles out there in the sticks — few of which are well-suited to being augmented or replaced with self-driving software, and even fewer which the owners have the means or interest to make such a change. How do you hook all those motor vehicles up to autonomous transportation in one fell swoop?

I think it’s easier than it sounds: you don’t.

Blue: self-driving / Green: connected / Brown: anything goes

When it comes to private roads and off-road trails (in brown), there’s not much sense in putting anything on the grid. They’re lightly traveled, and often so by all manner of odd vehicle… not to mention being driven rather adventurously on purpose, which autonomous software could turn into a real bummer. So leave all that alone.

Once you hit publicly funded local roads (in green), you start to become a liability and responsibility to others… even those folks far off in the city, whose taxes help to cover infrastructure costs if you wrap your truck around a pole. For the sake of all the autonomous traffic moving through and around these areas, any vehicle on these green roads should be connected. Not necessarily the “gubment gone and took my privacy away” connected though — just the kind of anonymous feedback signal that helps the grid understand where potential obstacles might arise. We’re talking about transponders that cost virtually nothing and reveal virtually nothing; this should be an easy sell for anyone who doesn’t have Don’t Tread On Me tattooed across their entire face. So, if you want to ride your moped from the backwoods to the gas station, your choices would be:

  • Slap an anonymous transponder on it and do as you please
  • Load it onto a truck that already has a transponder
  • Leave it at your house and go get gas with your truck
  • Take the off-grid moped to the gas station anyway, and run the risk of being reported to authorities by any ever-vigilant AV that sees you, or crashing into something and being held fully responsible for the damages

Now, for the main roads crossing city, county and state lines (in blue). Those are in the self-driving world. You don’t drive there, period. So, if you don’t own an autonomous shipping truck for your farm, or a self-driving car for trips into town, you’ll need to get yourself out from behind the wheel some other way. To that end, the big blue/green dot I’ve drawn just outside of town here can serve as a park-n-ride service: shuttles with the capacity to haul a few folks and their cargo could run on mass-transit-like schedules. You pull up in your connected-but-not-autonomous truck at 3:07, you park, and you hop on the driverless bus/pod/whatever at 3:10 to Yuma, or whatever destination.

If it sounds cost-prohibitive to develop an autonomous shuttle route for every single one-horse town in the country, remember what’s already rolling through there on a daily basis: cargo. Put a passenger compartment in Amazon’s delivery vehicles, and you could find yourself showing up on a city street corner with the tomatoes and canned goods.

The Adventure’s Just Beginning

Christ, it’s the Macarena of #vanlife

It’s natural to hear of looming change and imagine only the risk. It is natural, and idiotic.

Virtually every single innovation you enjoy today was met with waves of ridicule and doubt and fear. You can read all the naysayings of yesteryear and laugh at their primitive brains… but that’s you, buddy. That too, is you.

Get the monkey-grade fear-mongering reaction out of your head. “If cars drive themselves, then I’m no longer free to drive.” Okay great. What else? What else happens if vehicles can drive themselves, intelligently?

You can run a convoy out of your ranch for pennies on the dollar. You can run a one-man farm. You can enjoy the lower taxes and decreased bureaucracy that improved transportation efficiency affords, which is what you’ve been voting for all along. You can drink beers with your buddies and then go home without dying. You can send your dog to the vet without getting off your couch. You can have personal shopping malls show up in your driveway. You can make trips into the big city to see your brother without worrying about all the assholes on the road. You can make connections with all types of travelers who are now free to come see what makes your town so great. You can do your own traveling without worrying about physical health. Or you can let your kids explore the country by themselves and be home in time for dinner. Or you can stick your mother-in-law in one and get her as far away from you as possible.

I’m not going to give you all the answers. You ought to know better than I how beneficial driverless transportation can be, because you live here. Be the champion for a better life in the country.

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