In the next decade, driving will become a thing of the past — according to the firms of Silicon Valley and leading industry experts.  The introduction of “autonomous passenger vehicles” offers many potential opportunities for society, but also severe hurdles for those in rural communities if planning by governments does not take them into account.

There are at least five levels to current autonomous vehicles, with Level 1 offering driver assistance seen in many cars today. Level 2 offers “partial assistance” what we currently have in the Tesla models on the road. Level 3 offers something called “conditional assistance” — which means it can change lanes, control steering, throttle and braking. Level 4 offers “high automation” which says the cars can drive themselves, with a human driver on board. The vehicle then takes control of the ignition, steering, acceleration and braking and also pulls over. Level 5 is “full automation” according to the experts; this means the vehicle does not require a human on board and could potentially deliver parcels and return to parking stations.

The UK, Irish and several other European governments are keen on the technology as it would remove several major hurdles at a pen stroke. Parking, for example, in urban areas would become a thing of the past, freeing up pavements for further planting of trees. Moreover, the assistance of Level 5 autonomy would enable disadvantaged groups and those on low incomes to travel further as it would not be required to have a valid driving license.

Back in October 2015, The Telegraph newspaper reported that with the introduction of driverless vehicles, some 1.5mn elderly people “virtually trapped in their own homes because of poor inaccessible public transport” would be freed from such situations. For the growing “loneliness problem” of the elderly, a shuttle coming to your front door would be a saviour from daytime television.

“It could also potentially save older drivers hundreds of pounds a year in insurance premiums if tests show that the driverless cars can, as claimed, reduce the risk of accidents. Meanwhile, Age UK said it showed the technology, once confined to the realms of science fiction, could be a “game-changer” for many older people.”

Could rural communities miss out?

Such predictions of democratisation of transport bode well for such segments of society, however, this only makes sense in built-up areas. Potential commercial projects – and they will be profitable – as the Westminster government has shown little interest in making a future mass transit system a state-owned entity, could potentially mean thousands of communities are going to miss out due to pricing mechanisms related to distance.

The International Association of Public Transport (UITP) says the introduction “Robo-taxis” is a potential offering that could help rural society but notes that a significant threat to the potential democratising force of such services would be that it is in the hands of the private sector.

“AVs as Robo-taxis are a business opportunity for private firms (Uber, Google, Amazon, car-manufacturers). This could lead to the privatisation of urban transport services with a loss of influence for public authorities.”

Look to Germany for answers?


Deutsche Bahn’s (DB) autonomous vehicle subsidiary “loki” is one firm already moving ahead with self-driving Robo-taxies. The MPV-sized vehicle shuttles people 15 Kilometres with the help of a driver (Level 4) using a range of advanced technology. The German government – which owns DB sees this as the first step in opening public transport to those needing to cover short distances.

DB Passenger Transport Director Berthold Huber was on the first trip on an extended route in October 2019, where he commented on the potential for the vehicles.

‘The climate-friendly mobility revolution must also become a concern beyond major cities’, said Huber on October 7. ‘Rural areas, in particular, need new concepts to attract more people to environmentally-friendly public transport. Therefore, we want to link road and rail even more closely together. After all, individual mobility without a car should also be possible in rural areas.’

Closer to home, one rural community was given a brief glimpse of how the Robo-taxies could work in a rural environment. Telecoms operator, BT at the 100th Royal Welsh Agricultural Show, showcased how 5G technology – less incombered by geographic locations than 4G – directed an autonomous vehicle around a showground.

As we have seen with current rural bus routes, the numbers of people are not there for many transport companies, and councils who stump up a good portion of the share, have to remove several services if nobody hops on the bus. This current situation does not bode well for a rural autonomous future. Working on the assumption that companies would charge a monthly subscription to use so-called Level 5 driverless vehicles, and that charging stations would be based in the nearest market town, those living on farms and villages and hamlets far away could be charged per mile.

Further, there has been little to no research thus far on how autonomous shared vehicles act in the rural setting. Farmhouses in Cornwall or Ireland are often not on logged by the digital mapping systems. The problem of autonomy is further exacerbated with GPS satellite navigation systems — postcodes are often useless at directing us beyond the urban sprawl.

So far, we see that several governments and leading firms are selling the idea of rural connectivity with a vague promise of an accessible future. For those in the rural community, we must now work with our national and regional governments to make sure an autonomous vehicle future works for the rural and urban communities alike.