Adam Minter: The Promise of Autonomous Vehicles for Rural America

Have you ever been so tired behind the wheel that you needed to pull over to rest? Well, that’s one of the problems autonomous or self-driving vehicles promise to eliminate. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with author and Bloomberg Opinion columnist Adam Minter about the world of autonomous vehicles. We examine the impact autonomous vehicles might have on rural America, look at an appealing test program in a sparsely populated area of Minnesota, and explore how the elimination of drivers might assist those who cannot – or should not – be driving.

00:02 Narrator – This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

00:17 Adam Minter – And we’ve talked a lot about how this solves problems for seniors and disabled folks in these communities. But you know, it also potentially solves very big workforce issues.

00:29 Narrator – Have you ever been so tired behind the wheel that you needed to pull over to rest? Well, that’s one of the problems autonomous or self-driving vehicles promise to eliminate. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with author and Bloomberg Opinion columnist Adam Minter about the world of autonomous vehicles. We examine the impact autonomous vehicles might have on rural America, look at an appealing test program in a sparsely populated area of Minnesota, and explore how the elimination of drivers might assist those who cannot – or should not – be driving.

01:25 Alex Wise – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Adam Minter. Adam is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion and he is an author whose most recent book is Second Hand travels in “The New Global Garage Sale.” Adam, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

01:40 Adam Minter – Thanks so much for having me on.

01:41 Alex Wise – I’ve wanted to speak to you for a long time because you’ve been an important voice in not only covering the recycling and garbage space, but in China, and where those topics intersect. But today I wanted to talk to you about a topic that is one that I’m personally quite interested in and you had an angle on it that I, I thought, was one that hadn’t really been explored. The piece on Bloomberg Opinion is entitled Self Driving Cars are a natural fit for rural America. Usually we think of self-driving cars as an urban transport solution, but you were able to kind of look at it differently. Why don’t you explain the thesis of your piece, if you will.

02:26 Adam Minter – Sure, well, I had learned you know, about a month ago about a pilot program in Grand Rapids, MN which is about 180 miles north of Minneapolis where they were running autonomous Robo Taxi shuttles. I’ve been to Grand Rapids. The town of just over 11,000 people. And that threw me because, you know, as you just indicated, you know we usually think of autonomous vehicles. EV’s as something that you know, roams around flat places, warm places, test tracks in Silicon Valley or in Phoenix, AZ. And I found it interesting and it immediately clicked with me. Why this might work, and if you spend time in rural America. You know it might occur to you as well. Rural America is age. And it is also becoming increasingly disabled. No, that’s not to say that everybody is disabled. But you know about 20% of rural America is over the age of 65, compared to 16% across the United States in general. That’s a big gap. And when you have aging people, I mean I have aging parents, you know, they eventually have to give up the car keys whether they want to or not, and that means they need alternative rides. Those rides are easier to procure in cities, but in the countryside, in rural areas and places like Grand Rapids they’re both difficult to procure, even though there is public transit and they’re expensive and they’re irregular, and so it is an opportunity in theory for autonomous vehicles to come in and do what some of these expensive rural transit options are doing for a lot of money.

04:02 Alex Wise – So are we thinking for somebody like let’s say an 80 year old retiree who can’t drive anymore? Would that person hypothetically be buying their own autonomous vehicle or would they be able to access a more affordable taxi that would they be more available because of the limitations of having taxi cab drivers on call in rural America.

04:28 Adam Minter – Right, it’s a great question. In addition to being older, rural America is poorer. It’s not necessarily poorer, though. Some communities are, but on balance, there’s going to be fewer people in Grand Rapids, MN who can afford an autonomous Tesla, say, than one in Silicon Valley. So the idea in these rural communities and it’s not just Grand Rapids that’s thinking about this Grand Rapids is testing it out. You have communities in France and Japan with Asian countrysides as well, where they’re saying an autonomous taxi, RoboTaxi that can be called on demand is really maybe the business model that we want. It will require subsidies, but public transit always require subsidies, but those subsidies, in theory at least, if it’s on demand and it’s not driving around with a lot of empty passengers all day long, it can help provide transport for this aging community, this disabled community at a lower price point or equal price point.

05:23 Alex Wise – And at a much nicer, more comfortable ride. And it’s also worth noting that these vehicles would almost always be electric, so there’d be lower emission. You mentioned in the piece how the bus system in I think it was in Grand Rapids. Somebody’s route would be over at 3:30 in the afternoon or something like that. So we think of like, oh you take the bus into town to go to the grocery store not so simple, though.

05:50 Adam Minter – No, not at all. And that’s just it. I mean, when you have a community of 11,000 people, that’s Grand Rapids in the middle of this huge county it provide where the population is very dispersed. It’s extremely expensive to run bus routes and those you know you can’t have the number of bus routes that you would have, say in Minneapolis or in more densely populated place like New York City. It’s only a few. They go very infrequently and they end, for example on Fridays and I referenced this. Really, the last bus ride in or out of the only hospital in town departs the hospital at 3:20 arrives and departs at 3:20 PM. Well, if you have a late afternoon non-emergency or emergency appointment, you’re going to have to find another way to get home. The bus is relatively cheap, you know it’s a bus fare, but if you don’t have a ride. Then it’s going to be, you know. You’re going to be talking about medical transport potentially, which could be, you know, well over $100 you could be talking about a taxi. You know it could be dozens of dollars. I guess we could say. And if you’re a senior on a fixed income, you know that’s a real hit. You can’t get around, so having an on demand system and these are ride shares. It’s not just somebody coming and picking you up and taking you somewhere you may be picking somebody else. On the way in these autonomous vehicles, that’s how it works with the program in Grand Rapids, but again it provides more flexibility for the seniors so that they can get or anybody really, but it’s focused a lot on seniors and the disabled community so they can get around to these places like the hospital like community gatherings like family gatherings and it improves their quality of life as well.

07:28 Alex Wise – When I was reading the piece, one of the stories that was also popping up in the news was this record settings cold snap. That’s going through the country. I couldn’t help but think that a disabled person taking an autonomous vehicle in in inclement weather could be at risk if they don’t have a driver. If they’re, if they’re kind of just on their own with this robo-car, what kind of safety precautions are are being put in place to ensure their safety?

07:57 Adam Minter – Well, this is a pilot, I mean as a demonstration project in the state of Minnesota is paying for half of it and one of the reasons they’re paying for half of it is because they want to see how these autonomous vehicles do in in winter conditions. In Minnesota’s I grew up in Minnesota I I learned to drive on snowy icy roads and so you know, I was one of the attractions for me of the story. I really wanted to see how these autonomous vehicles handled it. The good news…

08:23 Alex Wise – So you so you went in these cars?

08:24 Adam Minter – Oh, yeah, I rode around for part of an afternoon and an evening just trying these things out on on icy roads and cold conditions. And the good news for anybody who’s you know, worried about safety is #1 when the State of Minnesota and Grand Rapids and everybody hired on May Mobility to do this – that’s the name of the company that’s actually providing the service. Safety was one of the top criteria. They wanted to make sure this was safe. One of the ways that they ensure safety is that they have what’s called an operator sitting in the driver’s seat of the vehicle, mostly with his. They’re all men. I think so. At least with his hands off the deal, but if something goes awry, he can grab the wheel. He can put his foot on the brake pedal, and he does that, and then he hits what’s called the log button so that you know, because there’s sensors all over this thing, so it logs whatever the issue was, and that’s sent to the programmers in Ann Arbor, MI, and in Minnesota so they can correct it. You know it was interesting for me as somebody who grew up driving on icy snow. I have to say I was grabbing the armrest a couple times watching this guy go down a snowy icy hill. You know it did OK. There are a couple of situations still where they are required. The operators are required to take the wheel because this is a pilot and these vehicles are learning. There’s an AI component to this. It’s only been going for two months, and if you talk to the operators you know they’ll tell you the vehicles are learning. They’re getting better on certain curves. You know at roundabouts taking certain turns. You know one of the anecdotes I thought was really interesting and illuminating was that two operators told me that the vehicle has started seeing deer about to jump into the road before the operators do, which is really important in northern Minnesota because the deer strikes are a real danger on those roads, even though these vehicles are only going you know, 35 miles an hour, I think at top speed. You don’t want to hit a deer at 35 miles an hour. Believe me, so they’ve learned to recognize those things. I also had a couple of moments in these vehicles where the vehicles you know, the operator had to take over at one point. One of the vehicles started veering off the road into a, you know, sort of a snowy shoulder. It couldn’t recognize where the shoulder. It was, you know, a couple of times. There were hard breaks where it it thought it saw something in the road vehicle exhaust and super cold weather. It creates big plumes so that can confuse the computer, and you know a story I told in the piece I was asked to be dropped off at a hardware store. I was driving this around town and it did drop me off at a hardware store, but it it dropped me off at the Snow Bank. You know, in front of the hardware store where a sidewalk is during you know warm weather, so it’s working out these kinks. It’s learning how to handle them and and May Mobility and the state of Minnesota go. Marty, everybody’s very open that that this is a learning process. And it’s the first pilot of its kind, with autonomous vehicles taking place in cold conditions like this.

11:32 (music break)

12:44 Alex Wise – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to journalist and author Adam Minter. So Adam we’re talking about these self-driving vehicles. You mentioned how this would have to be subsidized. How scalable is it? Is there a compelling business? Or autonomous vehicles outside of densely populated areas in a long term view. Sure, well May Mobility, which again is they have designed the vehicles that are driving around Grand Rapids are Toyota Siena’s at May Mobility. It works with Toyota. Toyota is one of its investors and then they insert their software and they’ve got sensors and various equipment on them to open them and what May Mobility told me is look we are price competitive with the most inefficient transit options bus services in rural America. We can do it for the same price, but we can give those people those rides to give them a better experience. Meaning better on time rates, more pickups, better service getting into the vehicles. You know if they’re disabled because three of these vehicles are wheelchair accessible so they are price competitive with the least efficient most expensive transit in rural America. That doesn’t mean that the transit services, if they end up adopting these vehicles, will run a profit, but you know transit doesn’t run profits. You know the New York City subway doesn’t run a profit either, it receives massive subsidies from the federal government from state government. And this program as well currently is half funded by the state of Minnesota and then the other half comes from a range of local governments, Grand Rapids, Itasca County private foundations, the Blandin Foundation for a total of $3.6 million. /, 18 months. But again, that should be price competitive with the services that are otherwise offered inefficiently via bus so that’s kind of the business model and then you know you can’t think of it just in terms of profit and loss, but you also have to think of it in terms of the value it brings to a community. If you’re getting seniors and disabled folks out of their homes, more into other businesses or just even going to the community centers, you know what kind of value does that build for a community and autonomous vehicles, at least what they’re trying to figure out is, you know, will these autonomous vehicles bring that kind of value to Grand Rapids we’re still 2-3 months into this program, but the early indications are that it’s been, you know, an excellent success and and we’re in the target communities are finding that they’re more mobile because of it.

15:30 Alex Wise – And is there a chance that they could widen the scope of this target community? I’m thinking, namely, children, people who can’t drive, yet you can be younger and drive in rural America often you can be 14 sometimes and and get your license, but that’s not ideal. Obviously there’s some liability issues connected with having a kid in a car by themselves without adult supervision, is there anything in place to try to assuage the concerns of parents and to facilitate the transportation of minors?

16:05 Adam Minter – Right, well one thing I was told that and I thought it was kind of fun actually. Is one of the operators who’s in the vehicle, you know? He told me that there have been, you know. A few teenagers who have figured out they can take this too and they download the app. That’s how you call up a vehicle and you know they can go pretty much anywhere in town where there’s a stop. I think there’s some 70 stops in town, so the teenagers have started figuring it out. You know one thing that will be the case in Grand Rapids, so long as this is focused on the disabled community. There will likely be an operator in the vehicle so and that operator, may you know, once the autonomous functions you know have reached a level where they don’t need to step in before it you know goes getting off the road. They may still play a role in helping to say, secure people with wheelchairs into the vehicle.

16:55 Alex Wise – Well, I’m kind of thinking long-term, 10-15 years, not just this program but the dream (of this technology) is to not have to have to rely on people to get around, right? I mean it kind of defeats the purpose of having an autonomous vehicle if you have a driver there except in terms of headcount, from a company standpoint.

17:13 Adam Minter – Well, they would you know. May Mobility, I don’t want to speak for May Mobility but you almost have to think of you know the operator inside some of these as kind of like an airline pilot. You know if you’re if you’re taking a jet, most of that flight is automated, but the pilots or the flight crew are busy with other things. Now there won’t be anybody serving drinks in these autonomous vehicles as they go around town, but you can still see a case for staffing them again if you’ve got large numbers of disabled people on a vehicle having somebody in there. You know, in case something goes wrong, makes real sense and for right now may says that they can do that at a price competitive with other transit options, and it’s kind of a net plus because the less they have to pay attention to the road, the more they can pay attention to the people in the vehicles. What that means long term for teenagers hopping. Into the vehicles you know to go wherever. But I could see there being an argument for continuing to maintain somebody in the vehicles, especially if the primary focus remains older and disabled Americans.

18:24 Alex Wise – And does a company like May Mobility’s model? Do you think that could translate into suburban and urban areas well, Adam?

18:33 Adam Minter – Well, right, they’ve I believe they’ve done, don’t quote me on this. I believe they’ve done nine other pilots in different parts of the country, including in Ann Arbor, I know they did one in Rochester MN, which is where the Mayo Clinic is located, so they’ve done all kinds of autonomous shuttle pilots in more densely populated areas, and so May clearly thinks that the technology that it’s developed and the business model that it’s developed certainly works and you can see you know a place like Rochester, MN, which is a a small city with a very large healthcare presence in the Mayo Clinic, I mean, if you’ve ever been to Rochester the the whole downtown is essentially the Mayo Clinic. It’s quite something you know you can see the argument for. If that’s the case, you probably want somebody on that shuttle not driving it but just being there because of the number of patients potential patients you’ve got going around. So I believe Grand Rapids is their 10th pilot, the first one that’s in a rural area for them and Ed Olson, who’s the CEO of the company called it their crucible. It’s the first time they’ve tried this. It’s extremely challenging. They wouldn’t have wanted to try it if it wasn’t challenging, and so far so good. They’re very they’re very optimistic that it can scale elsewhere.

19:50 Alex Wise – So you think this might be a different model than what we see in a city like San Francisco where we have Waymo and Ubers invested very heavily in autonomous vehicles, largely, I imagine because they want to reduce their overhead with real people, real drivers, and just have a bunch of robot cars around there. But you think that the May Mobility model is a little different in that it still will have people, but it will use the technology for a safer driving experience and more concentration on the passenger?

20:25 Adam Minter – Yeah, and it’s not just May Mobility, who’s looking at rural autonomous vehicles, I mean, as I said, you know Toyota has been on this for a long time as fast as the US rural countryside is aging, Japan is aging even faster. And if you spend any time in small town Japan, you know it’s very aging. And so Toyota and the Japanese government are also looking at this as a real viable, as a real, necessary technology. It’s also happening in France, which has the same kind of issue with an aging countryside. And So what I think is interesting about these rural autonomous taxis or shuttles or whatever you want to call them, is that there’s a real social need for them. You know you can’t necessarily say that there’s a social need and social demand for autonomous Waymos in San Francisco. They’re cool, you know, but I don’t know that it’s necessarily going to change anybody’s life substantially, but there is an increasing realization both by mail mobility and Toyota and other companies who are involved in this that this kind of technology in rural areas. Whether it’s rural Minnesota or you know rural northern Japan,  it fulfills a social need. People need this kind of technology and and I think that’s why you may and and potentially are going to see faster adoption and faster embrace of these technologies in these rural areas.

22:05 (Music Break)

23:02 Alex Wise – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to journalist and author Adam Minter, so we’re talking about urban rural, but then also looking at mass transit being autonomously driven, whether it be rail bus or trucks. I know that this isn’t part of your piece, but what are your opinions on how that third element of the autonomous space may evolve?

23:28 Adam Minter – Yeah, well, we have autonomous trains

23:32 Alex Wise – Right, like anybody who goes in an airport – almost all those trains are autonomous, for example, right?  But I was thinking of rural Japan, where you know the Japanese rail system is unparalleled and there’s a very strong Union. Those jobs are very sought after and highly paid usually. So I’m interested in in how those work those labor forces may be affected in the long term.

23:57 Adam Minter – Well, let’s talk about Grand Rapids because it was something I didn’t have enough space in the piece to write about it, but I did ask about it and are these shuttles going to displace workers up in in Grand Rapids and in other places and at the margins you would have to say yes, the only taxi company in Grand Rapids, MN has been publicly and vocally upset that these vehicles are there, they see them for obvious reasons, as is taking away their business and potentially putting at risk job of taxi drivers. You know the welcome has been mostly warm in Grand Rapids, but there’s clearly people who don’t like it. On the other hand, you could say in Grand Rapids at least that it’s also creating jobs. One of the operators, who is in the vehicle with me and a couple of my rides, a guy named and Nick. I asked him what was he doing before he got this job up, you know and basically this very high tech device doesn’t go off the road and he had been working cleaning mines. In that area there’s the old Minnesota Iron range. This was upscaling for him, and one of the goals that Minnesota has the state of Minnesota has with this pilot is to see can we upskill and re skill workers to work in this industry. And he’s not the only one. There are other people working at the May headquarters there, so you know, I don’t think job creation and job loss is necessarily a zero sum game. I mean there’s, there’s clearly. It’s going to be jobs lost, but already we’re seeing jobs gained. You know, at least in Grand Rapids, and I think to some extent at least, you’re going to see that what you know and autonomous trucking, which is something I’ve actually given some thought to in other pieces. It won’t be a smooth transition necessarily. It’s going to require some reskilling of workers but but that’s what good governments are supposed to be doing. You know whether they are or not, I guess is another question, but it’s certainly possible.

26:02 Alex Wise – Yes, and any kind of overhaul of an entire fleet, whether it be tweaking in terms of who’s driving the vehicle versus the vehicle itself? I mean I, it’s hard to look into the future and just connect the dots quickly because it usually takes many twists and turns. I mean in 1890 I’m sure the horse and buggy industry was pretty well ensconced and those people thought, well, we’re going to lose our jobs, and we’ll never work again, but they adapted and they became part of the motor vehicle industry, ultimately, right?

26:37 Adam Minter – Exactly and there’s a flip side to this as well. Is that there is a shortage of labor in rural areas. I mean, as these areas age, the number of working age adults shrinks and so a problem that rural communities have and it’s a problem that they share with urban areas, there’s a shortage of bus drivers and if you look this up, Google it, around bus driver shortages. They’re everywhere, New York City and in Grand Rapids, and so one of the arguments for these vehicles in rural areas is frankly just the fact that you have fewer people available to trade to drive these vehicles in a traditional sense, so you know that’s a whole different aspect of this that I think is quite important.

27:23 Alex Wise – Yes, I think the shuttle bus element could be quite a boon for a lot of these areas. I’m just, I’m thinking just any kind of small town and ski country has shuttle buses usually, but the problem is driver availability often.

27:40 Adam Minter – Exactly, so this is, I mean, we’ve talked a lot about how this solves problems for seniors and disabled folks in these communities, but it you know, it also potentially solves very big workforce issues.

27:54 Alex Wise – He’s a journalist and author for Bloomberg Opinion, Adam Minter. Adam, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

28:01 Adam Minter – Thanks so much for having me.

28:17 Narrator – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Muddy Waters and Ron Sexsmith. To read a transcript of this show, go to Stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast on our site or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand and many others and tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.