It is very much needed. There are more than 1 million households without a car in rural America. Providing them with affordable transit has always been an expensive challenge. Thanks to a rapidly aging rural demographic, it’s getting harder. Drivers are scarce, costs are high, and demand for trips to the doctor, supermarket and community center is booming.
Rural Americans are not the most obvious early adopters of robo-taxis. But now people in tighter communities need transit innovations far more than they do, and are far more willing to accept them. For autonomous technology companies, this is an opportunity to discover the reliability and usefulness of technologies that are struggling to be adopted in cities and suburbs. In Grand Rapids, one of those companies, May Mobility Inc., is partnering with the government and the community to make that deal a reality. If successful, self-driving technologies will have a powerful business case, and millions of Americans will have a ride in the countryside.
Located 180 miles north of Minneapolis, Grand Rapids is the largest town in Itasca County by a small population. It might seem unlikely that anyone would try to live without a car in such a large and cold region where health care, jobs and other resources are concentrated in one town. But the reasons aligned with personal car ownership in Grand Rapids, and across rural America, are powerful.
In 2021, 20% of the 46 million rural Americans were over the age of 65, compared to 16% of Americans in urban areas. Those rural Americans were, on average, poorer than their counterparts in urban areas—and more likely to be disabled. However, elderly people in rural areas are not even in the habit of buying a car and those who are physically able to drive a car tend to get behind the wheel as they get older.
That creates a dilemma. Carless or not, seniors and rural residents with disabilities still have places to go. Non-emergency medical appointments and grocery shopping are critical to maintaining health and independent living. Community-centered activities, from church events to family gatherings, enhance quality of life and reduce stress on caregivers.
In cities and suburbs, public transit buses can meet some of these needs. But because of their low population density, it is more difficult and expensive to serve rural areas well, especially in the evenings and during weekends. For example, the last bus leaves the only Grand Rapids hospital at 3:20 pm; anyone with a late afternoon or evening appointment must rely on expensive non-emergency medical transportation or taxis to get home. That intermittent service tends to hit those who can least afford it: In the US, 87% of the least revenue-efficient bus services (defined as revenue per thousand passengers) are located in communities rural. Of these, 80% are located in communities with a median income below the poverty line.
In 2019, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz appointed a council to study and advise on challenges related to new transportation technologies, including autonomous vehicles. One of the first appointments was Myrna Peterson, a quadriplegic disability advocate from Grand Rapids. “After a while I started to wonder why people weren’t at things like community events,” she told me at a Grand Rapids community center she reached via the city’s autonomous shuttle service. “No transport, especially in the evenings and at weekends. That’s something we have to be independent of.”
Around this time, May Mobility, an autonomous shuttle company based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, was looking for rural communities “where we could really demonstrate that we could help,” explains Edwin Olson, May’s chief executive officer, in a phone call. The help, as Olson sees it, comes from replacing or supplementing low-performance buses with on-demand, point-to-point, Mayo autonomous shuttles. Olson tells me the cost of the May shuttle is on par with typically inefficient rural bus services, offering better service hours and lower wait times and trips.
Much, but not all of the time, that service will be autonomous. GoMarti’s Sienna (Automation Level 4, in the industry) has technology that enables it to drive in most conditions without a human taking over. However, for safety purposes, a human operator remains behind the wheel — mostly watching, not unlike an airline pilot on a highly automated passenger jet — where conditions, such as frozen roads, require poor visibility , or a carousel. Over time, performance should improve and the role of the human operator will become less relevant. But even if the vehicles reach a point where they can operate during a snowstorm, an operator will likely remain on hand to help elderly and disabled passengers access the vehicles. For example, the automated delivery of wheelchairs remains an extremely difficult technical problem that is unlikely to be solved soon. For the month of May, the cost of the operator, now and in the future, is woven into the model, at least in Grand Rapids.
The Minnesota Autonomous Rural Transit Initiative (goMARTI), an 18-month, approximately $3.6 million demonstration (half funded by the state of Minnesota and the rest coming from public and private sponsors) began in September in Grand Rapids. The service offers five specially equipped Toyota Siennas, three of which are wheelchair accessible and Americans with Disabilities Act compliant. The shuttles are free, and can be requested using an app or by calling a dispatch center.
On a recent afternoon I took a few goMARTI tours around Grand Rapids, looking at the town and the service. It was a seamless and frequent experience. I watched the shuttle lanes change, turn, stop at stop signs and even negotiate busy intersections. It wasn’t much different from being a passenger in a regular car.
For May Mobility, achieving those unearned trips was much more challenging. One example: Autonomous vehicles operating in cities often rely on tall buildings as navigational aids. In a rural setting there are fewer such landmarks. So May Mobility erected what CEO Olson called “totem poles” – simple visual markers – along featureless stretches of the goMARTI service area.
Then there’s the Minnesota weather. On very cold days, autonomous vehicle tailpipe sensors can look like “moving obstacles”. Snow and ice present more obvious challenges. Human operators take over when roads are paved. But even when the roads are clear, the vehicles struggle with other ubiquitous elements of winter. During one of my evening trips, a shuttle began to veer into a snow shoulder, perhaps confused by the road’s boundaries. Later that evening, a shuttle dropped me off on a snow bank, where there would have been a side path in warmer weather.
When shuttle operators encounter incidents like this, they hit a button on the console to log a record for review by programmers and engineers looking to make improvements. Olson calls Grand Rapids “the crucible” where the company will learn how to handle snow and ice. So far, it has been learning, and even improving, human performance in several critical areas. Two operators told me that shuttle sensors detected deer about to jump into the road — a constant danger on Minnesota roads — before they could.
Ultimately, goMARTI can be considered a success if the people of Grand Rapids feel comfortable and safe choosing to use it. The early returns are promising. According to May Mobility, the shuttles have served 687 people (in a town of 11,000), more than 75% of whom are repeat riders. Equally important, around 30% of all journeys include a wheelchair.
In the long term, questions of affordability will certainly challenge the merits of such a program. GoMARTI is a free service, but transit subsidies are not unusual in rural or urban areas (the New York City subway could not operate without them). If, as May Mobility claims, the cost of providing autonomous services is competitive with the most inefficient transit services already offered in rural regions, the upgrade is worth it — even with an operator. Minnesota and Grand Rapids aren’t the only places thinking this way. In Japan, the government and automakers have long viewed the country’s rapidly aging countryside as an important destination for autonomous vehicles; in France, a consortium of companies is preparing an autonomous shuttle program designed to revitalize its rural regions.
Meanwhile, in the United States, the federal government and several universities have been examining autonomous rural behavior for years. The success or failure of GoMARTI will not make or break any of those programs and pilots. But with each trip, he’s building the case for autonomous vehicle networks that serve residents of rural communities, in the US and beyond.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asia, technology and the environment. He is the author, most recently, of “Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale.”
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