June 01, 2018 Feature

The Uneven Rise of Autonomous Vehicles and the Isolation of Rural America

By Adam Brumage

When futurists and technology business spokespersons speak of self-driving cars, it is usually in terms of a rosy future where no one need drive ever again. They conjure strangely empty city streets with shiny glass-walled RoboTaxis moving about. They invoke images of luxury mobile offices for the on-the-go businessman and family trips with everyone gathered around a table as they are chauffeured to the ski resort for a healthy day’s outing. These pictures are all very Disney with hints of The Jetsons and may happen eventually, but the interim reality will be very different.

Between the day we allow the first autonomous vehicle (AV) fully capable of operating on its own without guidance or intervention by a human driver to drive on the same streets as we do and the day the last of the human-driven cars are shuffled off to automotive dude ranches for risk seekers, there will be a long, ugly, and uneven process of replacement. There were 263 million registered passenger vehicles in the United States in 2016. If every car made in the United States today were autonomous, it would take ten years to replace even half that number. This process will be slow, and it will have an unequal impact on American communities.

Safety Disparities Caused by Transition to AVs

Critical to that unequal impact will be the geographically uneven replacement of human drivers. The first communities where AVs will outnumber human-driven cars will be in dense population centers and affluent suburbs. The limitations of early autonomous technology and the economics of transportation fleet operators like Uber and Amazon will make this inevitable. Early fully autonomous vehicles will require constantly updated, highly detailed three-dimensional (3-D) maps of roads to function, and fleet operators will concentrate their investment where they will derive the most profit.1 Thus, communities with low volumes of driving data, poor 3-D mapping, unpredictable road surfaces, insufficient or spotty cellular services for vehicle communication, depressed economic conditions, and low population density will see this transition last—namely rural America.2

This geographical disparity is not only an economic or convenience issue; it is a matter of human life. The recent high-profile fatal car accidents involving Uber and Tesla vehicles operating under control of AV technology raise concerns about the safety of autonomous vehicles, it is important to note that these technologies are in the early stages, and even imperfect AVs have the potential to dramatically reduce the incidents of car accidents.3 Consistently, rural traffic accidents represent half of the 37,000 traffic fatalities in the United States, and yet less than 20 percent of the population live in rural America.4 If one of the primary goals of AV technology is to minimize the death, suffering, and monetary costs of traffic accidents, we should be deeply concerned that the last people to have easy access to AVs will be those who are disproportionately likely to die from those same accidents. We can take some comfort in knowing that eventually technology, economics, and safety regulation will drive the adoption of AVs in rural America and the rate of fatal motor vehicle accidents will fall. Still, the longer this transition takes, the more the economic and human costs will fall on rural Americans.

Future Lifestyle Limitations for Rural Communities

As the number of autonomous vehicles in urban and suburban communities grows, the process of replacement will rapidly become one of displacement. AVs will be more efficient, faster, and safer than human drivers, capable of using our existing roads in ways humans simply cannot.5 AVs will have to slow down in the presence of human-driven vehicles and give human drivers more space to account for slower human reaction speeds. They will not be able to communicate with human drivers any more effectively than human drivers can with turn signals and brake lights. Fleet operators wanting more return on investment will put pressure on lawmakers to carve out lanes and roads for AV use only. City centers, entertainment complexes, and school zones will be made off-limits to unreliable and comparatively dangerous human drivers by both local governments pursuing safety and insurance companies wanting to minimize payouts.6

These prohibitions on human drivers will be a net positive for those who live in those communities and have access to AVs; the increases to safety and economy will more than offset their loss of freedom to operate heavy machinery. On the other hand, for rural America the effects will be increased costs and restricted freedom of travel. The cars that they use to travel around their homes and on poorly mapped or unpredictable rural road surfaces will be swiftly made useless anywhere else. Freeway and highway access will be locked off to human drivers, pushing rural Americans onto surface streets. Parking lots will be repurposed or optimized for AVs, shrinking the number of places where rural Americans can travel.7 Without a place to park at the end of a trip, there are few choices other than to turn around and head back. The longer it takes to provide rural Americans with access to AVs, the more isolated and marginalized they and their communities will be.

Ways to Include Rural America in Transition to AVs

While the replacement of human drivers by AVs is somewhere between likely and certain, there are things we can do as lawyers to mitigate some of the costs involved. The first and greatest contribution we can make is to work with both clients and government to prevent unnecessary slowing of AV development and implementation.

There are also business and public-private partnership opportunities to expand AVs into rural America that do not rely solely on the business plans of fleet operators and car makers. AVs offer radically increased mobility and freedom of travel to the elderly and those with disabilities that impact their ability to drive. Subsidizing businesses that provide AV access to the elderly in rural communities would help speed AV adoption and availability. Similar opportunities exist for expanding public transportation with AV busses, vans, and passenger vehicles.

Lastly, there will be a great deal of legislation and regulation that will be required during the process of carving out AV exclusive areas, which will be an opportunity to guarantee rural and low-income Americans are not left without reasonable access. It may take decades to reach the futurists dream of the last car accident, but there is no reason we cannot act to avoid shifting the burden of that future onto the people who will see the benefits last. 


1. Mark Bergen, Nobody Wants to Let Google Win the War for Maps All Over Again, Bloomberg Tech. 2018, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2018-02-21/nobody-wants-to-let-google-win-the-war-for-maps-all-over-again; Geography of Poverty, U.S. Dep’t of Agric. Econ. Research Serv. (2017), https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/rural-economy-population/rural-poverty-well-being/geography-of-poverty.aspx.

2. Laura Paszkiewicz, The Cost and Demographics of Vehicle Acquisition, Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey Anthology 61 (2003).

3. Aarian Marshall, The Uber Crash Won’t Be the Last Shocking Self-Driving Death, Wired (Mar. 31, 2018), https://www.wired.com/story/uber-self-driving-crash-explanation-lidar-sensors; The Tesla Team, An Update on Last Week’s Accident, Tesla (Mar. 30, 2018), https://www.tesla.com/en_EU/blog/update-last-week’s-accident; Nidhi Kalra & David G. Groves, The Enemy of Good, Estimating the Cost of Waiting for Nearly Perfect Automated Vehicles, RAND Corp. Research Reports (2017), available at https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2150.html.

4. Laurie F. Beck et al., Rutal and Urban Differences in Passenger-Vehicle–Occupant Deaths and Seat Belt Use Among Adults—United States, 2014, 66 MMWR SURVEILLANCE SUMMARIES, no. 17, Sept. 22, 2017.

5. DriveWave by MIT Senseable City Lab, http://senseabke.mit.edu/wave; Jennifer Chu, Driverless Platoons, MIT News (2016), http://news.mit.edu/2016/driverless-truck-platoons-save-time-fuel-1221.

6. Jason Henderson & Jason Spencer, Autonomous Vehicles and Commercial Real Estate, 14 Cornell Real Estate Rev. (2016).


Adam Brumage

Adam Brumage (brumagelaw@gmail.com) is a consultant and lawyer specializing in emerging technology and market and startup strategy with practice areas in employment, small business, and workers‘ compensation. He also writes on A.I. safety and ethics and the function of identity in a digital economy.