There is a significant buzz going on in the media at present on the prospect of electric and autonomous vehicles (AVs) which has got industry, insurance firms and government all questioning how we will commute in the next decade. But there has been little real-time research so far on the effects of AVs on rural communities.

UK Transport Minister Rachel Maclean said in January 2021 out that the autonomous vehicle market could be worth £41.7 billion by 2035, with the UK leading the charge in connecting towns and people across the country in the years to come.

This week’s post on FERN aims to look at how rural communities can embrace the so-called “driverless future” and what pitfalls await communities in the run-up and roll-out of such technology.
While AVs may sound like the nail in the coffin to the rural bus service, many people in the media and academics have suggested that with the introduction of these cars and “small transport systems” could potentially jeopardise how we live and how we get about our daily lives.

Roland Berger Group recently looked at this issue explaining how the system would work.

“In the morning, the pod picks people up from their homes and takes them to transportation hubs, such as a bus or railroad station. In the afternoon it takes passengers to hospital, supermarkets and the like, on demand. Come evening it is back moving people from hubs to their homes. In between rides, the pod’s interior is “refreshed” as and when necessary – a clean-up service and any minor maintenance that can be provided by a taxi driver, say, or a retired local resident. At the end of a busy day, the pod then goes to a central workshop for maintenance, repair, charging, software updates and so on.”

Automakers’ current direction

Large carmakers are currently redesigning their fleets in favour of electric vehicles, the latest of which is the Volkswagen Group with its growing collection of self-titled “ID” vehicles starting currently from the 3 and 4 models which are expected to lead the charge of that company’s transition away from the internal combustion engine. Recently the company has pushed ahead with its ID Life concept which indicates a smaller future ID2 model is on its way, and replaces the familiar Polo and Golf segment of the market.

Tesla, the grandfather of electric vehicles (EVs), has also said it will soon push ahead with smaller, less costly models of cars starting at $20,000, in an attempt to attract lower wage earners away from the current combustion engine line up of competitors. It is this push and the lower costs of running and building EVs as they move down the value chain that is where things start to change for the consumer.

Coupled with the fact Tesla and other companies have said full AVs will soon omit the traditional steering wheel is the sea change in how we use our cars. Carmakers have seen this coming for the past few years and Tesla has not been shy in how it wants to shake up how we travel, but the consumer still sees this as some future fantasy which will not change how they live their lives.

Stelantis, the new name of the conglomerate which now incorporates Peugeot, Citroen, Fiat, Vauxhall, Jeep and a host of other vehicles is the latest entrant to double down on efforts to shakeup how they do business. The mega-group of carmakers now has the edge over other companies in the market for the sheer size of its research and development (R&D) department and how people use vehicles.

The latest of these brands to move over to a new form of usage is Citroen, with its new fully electric e-C4 model and their new rental programme with Onto. Carmakers predict that as autonomy moves ahead, consumers will no longer purchase their vehicles but rent them. With this model of vehicle usage, consumers will potentially no longer need to leave the car in their driveway making the access to the vehicle and their monthly rental cheaper overall as it is being used by other people in the local community.

How will the innovative technology work?

If you have not heard already, AVs will effectively be placed in a large carpark overnight in each local community and automatically turn up at your day when hailed from a smartphone app – or that is how the marketing departments of these large companies are currently selling the future service.
This is good in the urban context, but in rural society this may be more difficult and costly to set up. This potential app-based system of transport is good for the youth in rural areas, however, there remains are growing proportion of rural society in Europe which are elderly and not connected to web. Much like the government’s push to close the village post office, by discontinuing non-digital services it effectively disconnects large swathes of the rural community.

Future problems

It is estimated that the elderly community will grow between now and 2050 and make up 17% of the total global population. In Europe and Japan, the largest economies which are currently classed as young with move up the age scale and hold a larger proportion of society overall. In the case of Germany by 2050 30-35% of the country is expected to be at retirement age or above the UK and Ireland are expected to be not too dissimilar in projections as well.
Current research suggests that autonomous vehicles work better in the urban setting than the rural environment. The Lidar (light detection and ranging) system which these cars use has been reported to struggle with things like hedgerows. This poses a short to medium to term issue with some systems currently in operation, however, with the bulk of R&D ongoing engineers will find a solution for the vehicles to spot the edge of the road.
Moving ahead, AVs could potentially revive local communities with instant access to vehicles at the end of driveways across the world, they could also only focus on the more profitable urban environments. FERN aims to make this a core aspect of our future research moving forward making sure that both government and service providers meet their targets of 100% urban-rural connectivity.