Driverless Technology May Accelerate Emptying out of Rural America

Republican Senator John Thune is calling for more government regulation to keep us safe in our future self-driving cars. I would think a good Republican would prefer a strong EMP over regulation as a response to robot danger, but I’m learning I shouldn’t overthink John Thune.

Thune and his Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee heard Wednesday that properly regulated artificial intelligence at the wheel may “cure” drunk driving and “offer massive economic benefits—less congestion, fewer injuries and medical claims, lower fuel costs, increased personal productivity, and better land use.”

Of course, driverless technology applied to tractors could also accelerate the hollowing out of rural America as corporate “farmers” realize they can monitor their fully-automated factory fields from their comfy urban homes:

While we move across the field, a GPS system guides the sprayer. Biesemeier barely touches the steering wheel.

“It won’t be very long before these things are driving themselves and we’re not even out here,” he says.

Purchased over the past several years, these machines allow Biesemeier and his brother to farm nearly 7,000 acres in this rural pocket of northeastern Colorado, near the Nebraska border.  Just a few decades ago, it would have been nearly impossible for a single family to adequately manage that much cropland. Now, Biesemeier says, his is a medium-sized farm in this part of the plains.

“It takes a lot of acres to pay that combine off, or that corn planter off, or that sprayer off,” he says.

That means farms on the Great Plains and in many other parts of the country have had to grow in size and adopt new technologies to make ends meet. He can’t just farm 80 acres and make a living, he says.

“I wish you could. I think life would be a lot simpler, easier,” Biesemeier says. “And there’d be a lot more people out here if that was the case” [Luke Runyon, “As Big, High-Tech Farms Take Hold, How Do Nearby Towns Stay Afloat?” KUNC/Harvest Public Media, 2017.06.13].

When there are fewer farmers, there are fewer families who need to come to each little town for parts, groceries, and school. Driverless technology may be one more advance that hurries migration from our old farm towns to Sioux Falls, Aberdeen, and our few other towns big enough to sustain themselves with goods and services beyond support for farm workers that we no longer need.

But here’s something to chew on: could self-driving vehicles create a counterbalancing migration force that could replenish small towns? If machines can chauffeur us everywhere, will more families choose the peace and quiet of small-town life and enjoy more work and family time on their long automated drive to Sam’s Club and Hy-Vee? Or might those drives disappear completely, as small-town residents get their weekly provisions by Hy-Vee drone?

36 Responses to Driverless Technology May Accelerate Emptying out of Rural America

  1. Porter Lansing

    IMHO … people like living close to other people. That’s why millions live in cities and thousands don’t.
    ~ When I mentally examine electric and now self-drivers, one thing continually beams in as a qualifier. “Would I get in one in a blizzard?” I suppose it’s just me, imagining self-drivers as l’il electric Mini Cooper’s when I should imagine self-drivers as big assed, one-ton Ford Super Duty’s w/ big screen video and Lazy-Boy seats. There, now I feel safer, which also arises from living close to others and very near 99% of my daily needs.
    ~ Thanks for the video, Cory. It’s not a stretch to picture our USA Democracy in terms of, “How we doin’ Tank?” … “WARNING : HULL BREACH”

  2. Snow messes up driverless cars, not just because the road is slick, but because snow covers the usual landmarks on which the computers depend. But they are working on it!

    Of course, I would suggest that it’s snowing enough that you’re worried your robot car can’t handle it, it may be snowing enough that humans shouldn’t be on the road, either.

  3. Darin Larson

    After witnessing a serious accident this morning and thinking of the approximately 30,000 automobile deaths a year in this country, not to mention the many more thousands seriously injured, I’m all in favor of driverless technology. If you can work safely on the move while your car drives across the vast expanses of SD, that is an additional plus for work productivity.

  4. Porter Lansing

    This is ski country, Cory. Only a couple times in 40 years has it been so bad skiers shouldn’t be on the road. We don’t do that snowdrift thing. :)

  5. Roger Elgersma

    My brother worked on Ford’s driverless pickup. He said the main problem is that when there is a problem it just pulls off to the side of the road and stops. It will either wake you up of send a message to get picked up. But the more problems they work out the less this will happen.

  6. Will driverless cars ever go mainstream?

  7. No, Chuck. Driver-less cars are an abomination that is just another step towards giving up our humanness. Besides that they are just creepy and scary and people aren’t going to stand for that. Plus, driving is fun as I recall.

  8. I’m going out on a bit of a limb here, but I’m going to say that our current crop production model is unsustainable. Both financially and environmentally. We spend more and more on traits and pesticides every year and they work less and less. That is the definition of unsustainable.

    Fixing this will require a paradigm shift that many who are currently involved in agriculture will not be able to handle. It well be more labor intensive and require producers to be much more hands on in their operation. Not conducive to self driving tractors. This movement is called Regenerative Agriculture, and should breathe life back into rural America.

  9. Chip, sure, driverless cars will go mainstream, just like driverless washing machines.

    As for our ag production model, Chip, you and Wendell Berry might get along well. Berry has long contended that industrial-scale ag is unsustainable and that we need to go back to local self-sufficiency to maintain stable rural communities.

  10. Driverless cars will revolutionize freedom in the United States of America. I remember when my family had to finally take away my grandmothers drivers license (after many potential he life-threatening accidents). When I consider my grandmother’s lack of mobility, even though she could walk just fine at 90 years old, I just wish she had the freedom to go to town and enjoy herself the way she used to.

    In essence, do/did you love your grandmother? Do you want to put an end to drunk driving once and for all? Do handicapped people deserve the freedom to go to the store when they want?

    Driverless cars will also reduce the accident rate by 40% or more.

    Essentially, I pity the fool who ain’t pumped about driverless cars brightening our future.

  11. But driverless washing machines won’t kill anyone if they malfunction. Or further disrupt an already excruciating commute in some areas.

    It appears that Mr. Berry’s heart is in the right place, but I prefer people who are less talk and more action. We have an epidemic of talkers in this country.

  12. I suspect many a cat has died alone in a washing machine.
    But these cars will probably be so expensive a fellow like me will still need a ride to Talleys every weekend.

  13. Porter Lansing

    There will be driverless cabs,Grudzie. Just like the Uber I use now only without the pretty lady drivers. SoDak may be slow in getting them,though. Colorado already has had driverless semi trucks of beer going down the Interstate. Cabs will be soon.

  14. Mr. Lansing, I realize you live in Colorado but we have no pretty lady drivers here in South Dakota. Most of the pretty ladies here are on the insaner side of politics.

  15. “Pretty” is in Grud ‘the crud’ Nick’s opinion.

    Crudnick, shall be his name from this day forth.

  16. I operate equipment that drives itself all the time. The technology is awesome, but far from flawless. Anything less than flawless is unacceptable on public roads. Will they need their own lanes? Could we afford to accommodate that? Look at the algorithms used in commodity trading. Some of the most brilliant minds in the world designed these to “drive” the markets. They can scour the internet, Twitter, FB, etc. searching for headlines and trading them before humans could even click on the story. They are designed to assess what they see and act accordingly, just as I assume a driverless car is supposed to. As smart as they are, they still screw up. They still read things wrong. They still rely on human correction. I don’t see where self driving cars would be any different.

  17. Since people are less than flawless, folks say, “no driverless cars!”

    Says the dumb ass.

  18. Soon, Agriculture will be so automated, rural people may (one day) cease to exist.

  19. Except for hermits, Mr. Adam, and people who don’t like to live in big cities like Des Moines and St. Louis. Some people like to live in the boonies and have pet cows and mow their own fields.

  20. Dumb Ass!?! Please…. get your ego on a leash before you embarrass yourself. Did you even read the article you posted??

    “It turns out that, ***according to the data Tesla gave investigators,*** installing Autopilot prevents crashes—by an astonishing 40 percent.”

    I suppose if the coal industry presents data showing that coal doesn’t pollute the environment, were just supposed to take their word for it??? Give me a break.

    According to the manufacturer, from your article:

    “….Autopilot is recommended only for highway driving.”

    Would you have to walk to the nearest highway to catch your driverless Uber? Seems convenient.

    Is Tesla’s Autopilot mileage data referring to driverless operation like sending your car to pick up your kids from daycare while you prepare a meal after work? Or is it referring to having a driver in the driver seat?

    Did their data show the number of instances where a manual override by the operator was necessary?

    And since you wonder if I love my grandmother, and took the liberty of calling me a dumb ass, I’m going to ask you if you love your kids(or would if you had)? Would you feel comfortable having driverless cars cruising through your neighborhood?

  21. You must be too old to learn to understand that human error causes every accident and that autopilot cars remove humans from making errors.

    The latest Autopilot technology is far better than that within the article I shared, and it will just keep getting better over time. And we we will become more excepting of it.

    Failure to recognize these very basic facts means dumbness.

  22. Not going to address a single point I made? Not surprising. Must be embarrassing. At least for anybody with any amount of integrity it would be.

    I will agree with you on the positive synergistic relationship between people and these automated systems, but that’s as far as I’ll go.

    As I said, I’ve had experience. GPS signal isn’t always stable. I don’t care how great your technology is. If you don’t get the data you need, you’re a sitting duck. That’s just the inconvenient truth. Hopefully the car is smart enough to get you to the side of the road safely before it’s forced to stop. How about ice? Rain? Will it keep you from hydroplaning? Will it drop you to 40mph because the road is wet while everyone else is doing 70? Detours? Maneuvering road construction? Ever driven a semi in a side wind? How far away from an obstacle does begin to assess and start slowing down? 1/2 mile? 1/4 mile? 100 yards? 100 feet? 50 feet? If a power line falls down on the road is the car going to drive at road speed until it’s sensors pick it up, and stop 3 feet from it? Presumably it would be doing it’s job at that, but is it safe? Is that where you would want to stop?

    I guess if asking questions makes me an old man, then that’s what I’ll have to be. I can think of worse things to be…

  23. Chip, if you cared enough to Google the answers to your questions, then you would find them. Instead you speak with a baseless certainty against what you don’t understand.

    Answering all your questions would just keep you from learning for yourself, on your own time, at your own pace. If I take the time write it out for you, it would seem like I was force feeding data that you are not yet ready for.

  24. In my lifetime, I’m gonna be pumping to get rid human drivers on the road because they are significantly more dangerous than Autopilot.

    Maybe not in your lifetime though.


    Shall I keep learning for myself, or can we just agree that you don’t have the slightest clue what you are talking about?

  26. It’s very simple, you should keep learning for yourself… And try to stick with recent sources of information… not the antiquated source you sited.

  27. I’m going to pass on to you a bit of advice my grandpa gave me years ago when I was a pre-pubescent boy such as yourself. He said “Chip…Schit in one hand, and wait for Tesla to perfect autonomous cars in the other and see which one fills up first.” It was a turning point in my life, and I’ll never forget it.

    Now for a prediction of my own:

    Uber will pick you up at your house in an unmanned drone long before they will pick you up in an unmanned car. Barring some token “Hey! Look at me!!” event. You see the technology isn’t over my head at all. I’m just being realistic. Now run along and play your video games…

  28. Porter Lansing

    Your Grandpa did know a lot about chicken schit, Chip. Especially in Madison but he didn’t know much about bright yellow cars … or Uber. Seems you’ve carried on the family tradition. Wink Wink

  29. I disagree with Chip and his grandpa. In fact, if my gramps were to say something so stupid as his, I’d never tell anyone about it – out of respect for the pretty darn smart man he was.

    Yeah, we’ll have drone quadcopter transportation before last week when Tesla announced the release of there new incredibly baddassed Autopilot that does pretty much all the driving. Yeah, good one Chip.

  30. I’ll let others pick apart what little data we have so far on accident rates for human drivers versus robot drivers designed by humans. I will take the side of technology, however, and note that the tractor operator quoted in the original article can already see the machines rendering his presence unnecessary on the farm. Dispatching GPS-driven machines to plant, spray, and harvest fenced-in-fields seems more tractable engineering problem. The field may be automated before the highways.

  31. Don Coyote

    1) Tesla’s “Autopilot” is not autonomous although the name implies that it is.

    2) The biggest issue facing autonomous driverless cars is the possibility of hacking. As the IT boys like to say about hard drive crashes it is not a matter of if but when.

  32. It’s sad. The state of Michigan knows the automobile industry better than most, and just look at how they embrace our autonomous car future:

    Meanwhile, conserva-kotans are all like, “I don’t trust the future.”

  33. So the real danger is not robot error but human malfeasance.