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?

54 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.

  34. Europe has had autonomous driving for decades. They are called “trains”. We can’t have such things over here though even though we once had them. We have come up with a better scheme. One that costs a fortune to keep up and burns far more fuel.

  35. Like to make a point on these so called autonomous driving cars. One would suppose that big insurance will demand that these cars are safe. If they do they will insist that these cars follow other vehicles at a safe distance. Because of that they will leave a huge but safe gap between them and the next vehicle. So much so that around any of our modern city’ human driven unsafe vehicles will pull in in front of them. With the way modern drivers drive I can see the autonomous vehicles coming to a complete stop to avoid following another vehicle too closely!
    These things aren’t going to work!

  36. Porter Lansing

    Clyde … Negativity bias is when you spend more time thinking about why a new idea or product won’t work than you spend figuring out how to make it work. Basically, it’s just making the lazy choice. You can do better.

  37. You are correct Chip on the way agriculture is done in such a way to destroy the lands. Sustainable farming can be done without the use of jacking nitrogen into the ground or through many other ways that make the Gulf of Mexico a dead zone.

    If ranchers were to take a look at rotation grazing, mob grazing is another word for it, they could rejuvenate their pastures to include week reduction. Check it out. Ya gotta work for it though, you just can’t expect the cows to figure it out for ya.

  38. Interesting thought, Clyde, that we humans could be the wolves among the sheepish robot cars, who would all back off at the first hint of crazy behavior from a meat-driven machine. But the robots will all snap pictures and instantly report us to the police, who will send RoboCop to take us out.

  39. Some people might say that Ford Motor Company is wasting a billion dollars on autonomous driving technologies that have no chance of ever working. Ford is so stupid and that’s prolly why they needed a bailout [oh yeah, that’s right, they didn’t need a bailout because they have/had a sound business model for quite some time].

    I’s just a shame to watch a big group of techno-fools waste a billion dollars – especially when a person in a remote rural state clearly knows better than Ford Motor Company.

  40. Porter, nothing negative….just factual. My neighbors combine is autonomous. Runs almost totally by GPS and warns him when he needs to take control. In a situation like that what are you going to do? Well, you fall asleep. So the combine lost its signal and he went most of the way across the field diagonal to the row’s.
    Adam, concerning Ford…..are you too young to know anything about the Edsel??

  41. Porter Lansing

    Good story, Clyde. You know, when I was 14, I fell asleep behind the wheel of the big Case and did the same thing. Really made the neighborhood laugh. LOL
    I do know that if we grouped all the people throughout history that had an aversion to new things and new ideas, almost never did it change a darn thing . I say, “Think Ahead – Make Money”.

  42. Porter Lansing

    That’s neighbor not neighborhood. Not enough neighbors on the farm for a hood. :0)

  43. mike from iowa

    Saw an Edsel a month or so ago. Just as ugly now as they were coming off the assembly line. It does have an arresting front end-kinda Parton-like and probably as solid.

  44. I can see how some people think most farmers are so lazy that they sleep all day in the air conditioned, surround sound, HDTV equipped, Autopilot combine, and how some computer programmers are so thoughtless that they wouldn’t program the combine to stop after 1 minute when a human is not controlling the vehicle during critical times.

  45. What is a cultivator??? This could be a huge deal to answer my question. Farmers have kind of put those cool rascals up in trade for spraying poison on the fields. If there were driverless technology to do that cultivating job, that would save our water from the poison runoffs into the streams and creeks and, well, you get the picture. Water is life. The program could be set up like any GPS system, I think. Maybe at the time of planting, a grid could be established and away we go. As I remember, sometimes it took a couple of passes with the cultivator to finally say you won. BTW, farmers might be the last ones to turn out the lights in rural America, but their history has always been to know where the switch is.

  46. Robot farms will put the corporate megafarms out of business. Or maybe the corporate megafarms are already becoming the first to adopt robot workers. Probably those drone things too. Remove all subsidies for megafarms.

  47. Jerry, such cultivators exist but spay is cheaper and, in the hills, better for the environment [I think!] because tilling the soil leaves it open for erosion.

    Grudz, unfortunately, I believe you may be right. The big equipment makers already have tractors with no cab and no provision for a human operator out on test. You think your small towns look sad now! We need policy, not just in agriculture but everywhere, that employs people and stops handing everything thing to the 1%

  48. The only sensible solution to the problems of automation phasing out jobs is to institute a basic income. In fact, there is no other solution

  49. Adam
    Without charitable or government intervention I think wages would be driven down to a level where automation would not be affordable. That is if there wasn’t a revolution first.

    Everyone that is in business is either in the process of going out of business or working to become a monopoly. Unfortunately when the country is full of monopolies like it is getting to be then the whole system breaks down. Choice goes away and pricing becomes predatory. We have that in many industries today with government only promoting more. Of course government is promoting more because of the influence of what the monopolies have which is lots of money.

    Jefferson and I believe we should have an agrarian based society. We need a new homestead act of sorts that will repopulate rural America but I’m afraid that the opposite direction will continue to be our course. Ag policy hasn’t assessed the cost of all the bulldozed and buried homestead’s or the dying towns. Or for that matter the human lives. Suicide is very high among farmers.

    Anyway….my morning rant!

  50. Automation makes everything more affordable to manufacture. The only problem is, the business owners are the primary benefiticiaries of automation, especially when they throw members of their communities under the bus of unemployment.

    The only thing we have to fear is the wealthy’s unwillingness to pay their fair share of societies ongoing expenses, as well as the wealthy manufacturing a culture of undue selfishness and shortsightedness for the poor to struggle through.

    Republican alternative reality is the problem. Rural people were the victims, but they have now become part of the problem.