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Automated Systems on Roads Less Traveled

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March 3, 2021—Autonomous vehicles are currently being tested in some of America’s biggest cities and lauded for their advanced technologies, but have yet to conquer a gravel road.  

A recent webinar from Partners for Automated Vehicle Education discussed the shortcomings of autonomous technology in rural areas and how they must be addressed in order to serve the populations that stand to benefit the most from advanced vehicle technology. 

ADAPT has addressed the challenges of autonomous systems in rural regions and even brought readers an inside look at one government-funded project set to launch this summer on America’s backroads. 

Rich Granger, managing director of workforce and economic development for DriveOhio, an initiative committed to the development and testing of smart and connected vehicles, said “Transportation and mobility are so central to how people get access to jobs, healthcare, and education.”

Autonomous transit systems could be a game changer for wheelchair users, elderly residents, and other underserved communities that have been routinely overlooked by the latest advancements in technology. But that’s already starting to change.  


What’s the big deal?

For human drivers, there are noticeable differences between rural and urban settings, even if you’re just behind the wheel. Urban settings often have lower speed limits, more crosswalks, clear lane markings, and even fresh signage. 

Jiaqi Ma, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California Los Angeles said urban infrastructure is often maintained very well in comparison to rural infrastructure, which can pose an issue for autonomous vehicles that rely on camera and radar sensors to decipher its surroundings. 

Rural areas are known for their rugged terrain, said Alex Lybarger, assistant director of advanced mobility for the Transportation Research Center Inc.

“Some rural roadways don’t even have lane markings or they go straight from asphalt to grass or asphalt to gravel,” he said, a nightmare for autonomous systems that rely on relatively predictable road conditions to operate. 


What’s the solution?


In order for rural areas to be traversed by autonomous technology, the private and public sector will need to work together. Granger said residents of rural areas need to be included in the conversation as well as city officials. 

Even academia has its place in this space, Granger said, referencing the Automated Driving Systems for Rural America project being conducted at the University of Iowa currently.


Ma said if cities were to invest in infrastructure for autonomous mobility, it would look like clearer lane markings, legible signage, and even codes embedded into signs that are naked to the human eye, but helpful to autonomous systems. 

Granger said as the industry pivots toward electric vehicles, charging infrastructure will also become increasingly more important, “since so many automated vehicles are also electric.”


While there has yet to be a level five, fully autonomous vehicle, Lybarger said the way of the future is discovered through data. 

“Everyone says level 5 is way off into the distance, but it starts by collecting data,” he said. 

The ADS for Rural America Project, which is deploying automated shuttles this summer,  is just one example of how data is being collected to better inform the operation of autonomous systems. 

“The goal is not to connect urban communities with rural ones,” Granger said. “The goal is to meet them where they’re at.”

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