Last month, while applauding the progress and potential of driverless cars, Elaine Chao, the head of the U.S. Department of Transportation herself, pointed out that rural America shouldn’t be left behind when it comes to taking advantage of the revolutionary technology. “Not everyone lives downtown,” she said during a speech at the North American International Auto Show.
So, does that mean the solution to transportation challenges facing communities like Rappahannock is on the way?
For all the promise of autonomous vehicles (AV), they remain a work in progress, and when they are ready to move beyond the testing phase, their first big rollout will likely come in big cities. Think fleets of driverless Uber cars in constant motion, responding to mobile app requests on downtown streets.
The state of Virginia has tried to ensure that it doesn’t miss the AV wave by designating Virginia Automated Corridors — roads open for autonomous test drives. But these are major highways, such as I-66 and I-95, a long, long way from gravel roads through the woods.
AV technology, in truth, faces some big hurdles before it’s ready to go rural. Here are key ones:
Rural conditions are a different world
AVs rely heavily on lidar sensors, which bounce laser beams off objects to precisely measure their distance and help identify them. But the heavy lifting is done by the machine’s artificial intelligence, which teaches itself how to distinguish different objects. It’s true that busy urban streets, with their jumbled flow of vehicles, bikes and pedestrians, produce complex scenes for AVs to interpret. But it’s also true that’s where they are doing much of their learning. Rural environments, while seemingly simpler, bring their own learning curves and levels of randomness. Is that object on the road a branch, an animal or a pothole? How dangerous is it? Also, AV performance can be affected by the condition of the road. Obviously, rutted, unpaved surfaces are far from ideal.
Cutting-edge wi-fi may be necessary
As much as it may seem a driverless car is working solo, it’s actually connected to a complex communications network that includes roadside infrastructure — such as signs and traffic lights — data centers and other vehicles. That’s key to both its real-time awareness and how it learns new things over time. It’s widely believed that peak performance will require 5G wireless networks, the next generation of high-speed, ultra-reliable wifi, which should begin rolling out in a limited number of U.S. cities later this year. It’s hard to imagine 5G wireless in a place with the connectivity issues of Rappahannock any time soon. But there’s hope. Some experts say that if telecom companies go into the business of providing streaming media to AV passengers, as expected, they’ll be much more motivated to upgrade connectivity in rural areas.
Power demands of AVs reduce their range
When AV boosters wax rhapsodic, they’ll often talk about how driverless cars will transform long commutes into more productive, restful, even fun experiences. What they usually don’t mention is that all the computing power burns a lot of energy. By one estimate, it’s equivalent to having 50 to 100 laptops running simultaneously. That could reduce fuel efficiency by as much as 10 percent, and since most AVs are likely to powered by electricity, it would shorten the distance you could travel on a battery charge. Not exactly an asset in a community where a trip to the grocery store and back can easily cover 50 miles.
Eventually, driverless cars will be part of the Rappahannock landscape. But chances are they won’t be for at least another decade.