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Adam Minter

Self-Driving Cars Are a Natural Fit for Rural America

An aging population that often lives far from essential services is giving autonomous vehicles a chance to prove they can make a difference.

A clear destination for autonomous vehicles.

A clear destination for autonomous vehicles.

Photographer: Silas Stein/Picture Alliance via Getty Images

On a recent Friday evening, a white Toyota Sienna minivan with a cylindrical sensor mounted on its roof slowed to a stop in front of the only hospital in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, population 11,000. The door opened, and I took a seat behind the driver: a computer rack mounted in place of the passenger seat. Next to it was a friendly young operator who sits behind the steering wheel and ensures that this self-driving rideshare doesn't suddenly skid into a snowbank or a pedestrian. Then we were on the way, passengers in the first autonomous vehicle pilot to run in a cold and icy rural environment.

It's a pressing need. There are more than 1 million car-less households in rural America. Providing affordable transit to them has always been an expensive challenge. Thanks to rapidly aging rural demographics, it's becoming harder. Drivers are scarce, costs are high, and the demand for rides to the doctor, the supermarket and the community center is booming.