This is the first installment in a multi-part series identifying policy reform opportunities that could improve the quality of life for rural Americans.
We are on the precipice of a revolution in transportation. Drones and air taxis promise cheaper and faster deliveries and commutes. Autonomous automobiles can make our roads safer and more efficient. Even bicycles have gotten a high-tech makeover making it easier to transition away from total car reliance.
Although these innovations are often associated with urban environments, rural communities can enjoy many of the benefits as well. Such applications are arguably more needed in remote areas, as rural populations often lack convenient access to crucial services like healthcare. Next-generation transportation technologies can bridge the access gap and greatly improve people’s lives.
Prepare for Autonomous Vehicles
By now, the public is aware that autonomous vehicle technology is right on the horizon. Autonomous features, like swerve-sensing and self-parking, are already standard in popular cars. New Teslas are equipped with hardware that allows fully self-driven functionality. Then there are completely autonomous vehicles, like Waymo’s commercially operational pilot driverless taxi service in Arizona.
These are exciting developments. They are particularly important for people in more remote areas, where transportation access may be difficult. Driverless trucks could lower the cost of interstate transport, which could mean more and cheaper product deliveries to hard-to-reach places.
Autonomous vehicles could also make it easier for people to forgo the considerable cost of buying and maintaining their own car. Unfortunately for lower-income residents, rural areas often lack the public transportation infrastructure of their urban counterparts. Not having your own car in the country means being virtually cut off from commerce and social activities. Autonomous taxi services could do a lot to make transportation available for everyone, even in remote areas.
While the technological improvements in AV are impressive, policymakers should not assume that these technologies will automatically come about. Policy reform may be needed to ensure that every area can tap into the full potential of AV innovation.
First, public leaders should ensure that their policies facilitate AV infrastructure development. Driverless cars require a host of inputs—things like 5G coverage, positioning technology, and sensor communication. This means that physical hardware must be placed around roads and other public rights-of-way. Any policies that unreasonably prohibit such infrastructure development should be scrutinized and reformed.
This is not to say that policymakers should pick favorites. The brightest candidates of today may ultimately be inefficient. Subsidizing any specific company or technology standard runs the risk of locking us into inferior methods.
State and local policymakers should, therefore, resist the urge to financially back specific technologies or vendors and instead devote public resources to general infrastructure improvements that could benefit any potential technology. More construction of rights-of-way infrastructure like utility poles and conduits are good for everyone.
Finally, states may consider forming special committees to analyze current roadblocks to AV technologies and recommend innovation-spurring reforms. This is the tack taken by Arizona, a hotbed for AV development. Each state has its own unique circumstances and challenges. Assembling a dedicated expert body to dive into the intricacies can help to fine-tune the final reforms.
Ready the Skies for Drones and Air Taxis
Transportation innovation will not be terrestrially limited. Unmanned autonomous vehicles (UAVs), more commonly known as drones, already assist photographers, rescue operations, and farmers from above. In some countries, companies are already testing drone package delivery. In the not-so-far-future, vertical take-off and landing vehicles (VTOLs)—flying cars, really—may whisk human passengers and cargo safely and quickly around the skies, as Mercatus scholar Brent Skorup recently discussed in the Wall Street Journal.
VTOLs are impressive for their mechanics and elegance, but they are not too different in function from helicopters. (Although they will be a lot quieter!) As such, they provide rural populations with another option for fast aerial transit in the case of a medical emergency or natural disaster. You can learn more about VTOLs in Skorup’s research paper, “Auctioning Airspace.”
Drones, too, can be a boon to rural communities. Like driverless trucks, they can make deliveries to harder-to-reach locations more frequent and affordable. In the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, drones were critical search and rescue tools that located stranded victims in rural counties. There are agricultural applications, too. Farmers can use UAVs to monitor, spray, and even plant crops, which can dramatically lower costs.
It would behoove lawmakers ensure that their policy environment encourages appropriate rural UAV and VTOL penetration. Skorup believes that there is much that state policymakers can do to prepare their skyways.
First, Skorup recommends that small aircraft like VTOLs be granted a navigational easement to low-altitude airspace. This ensures that air taxi operators do not have to fear multiple trespass lawsuits from property owners far down below.
Such easements have already been common in dozens of states since the 1920s when the commercial aviation industry first took flight. So long as the flights do not unduly disturb the homeowners below, aircraft operators are given the green light to soar in the skies.
Granting easements to VTOL operators will remove innovation-stifling liability concerns while still respecting the rights of those on the ground.
Next, Skorup suggests that states consider forming an aviation advisory committee. Different states will have different legacy policies and infrastructure issues to consider. An expert panel can sort through questions about municipal zoning for air taxi launchpads, impediments to electrical grid improvements, and noise threshold concerns. Getting ahead of these issues and proactively implementing the right reforms can ensure that low-lying aerospace innovation is not stalled by regulatory neglect.
Flexibility is Key
Autonomous vehicles, drones, and air taxis are just a few of the potential transportation innovations that can soon make remote communities feel closer connected to their neighbors. One of the great things about Skorup’s recommendations is that they can improve the policy environment for transportation technologies that have not yet even been imagined. Many kinds of ground-based connected transportation would benefit from better rights-of-way rules, for instance. So long as policymakers resist the temptation to play favorites with certain companies or applications, the transportation renaissance on the horizon can benefit all constituents, from the city to the country.