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#2Case Study

Will AI Make Rural Mobility More Sustainable?

Magazine #2 | Summer 2023

Will AI Make Rural Mobility
More Sustainable?

Far away from the cities, population numbers are falling even as the average age of rural residents is rising. That has consequences for public mobility: Because it is expensive to serve expansive, ­sparsely populated areas, public transportation coverage is shrinking.

At the Federal Level:

German politicians are promoting the technological developments necessary for autonomous vehicles. They are also trying to create greater public acceptance for driverless vehicles. But little progress has been made in rural mobility.

“In rural areas, ­pilot projects aimed at ensuring mobility through greater automatization are to be developed.”
Digitalization Master Plan Lower Saxony

At the State Level:

The expectations for autonomous driving outlined in the mobility and digitalization strategies developed by Germany’s states are vague. The hope is that autonomous vehicles can expand public transport offerings and promote innovative business models. Sustainability considerations, however, are hardly mentioned in connection with rural mobility.

“Introducing automated driving is an opportunity to provide mobility services, particularly given demographic change and rural development needs.”

State Transportation Plan Saxony

The Goals of Current Pilot Projects

The test projects aim to make progress towards achieving federal political targets: Technical systems for autonomous minibuses are being tested and further developed. Of the 16 projects in rural areas, nine focus on the typical challenges rural areas face in the mobility revolution and in providing flexible services to meet demand. Studies are less likely to focus on economic feasibility (three projects), social inclusivity (one project) and the potential for reducing reliance on private cars (one project). Sustainability criteria for the development of the necessary AI systems are not explicitly mentioned in any of the projects.

A Work in Progress

To effectuate the mobility ­revolution in rural areas, public transportation and cycling must be strengthened relative to automobile traffic. Available offers must be widely available, inclusive, climate neutral and economically viable. At best, there are only a few hints as to how and when autonomous minibuses might be able to make a contribution.


Though we use the term “autonomous,” the minibuses currently in use tend only to be “highly automated.” Usually, there is a safety driver in the vehicle to monitor operations and intervene if necessary. The ultimate goal, however, is for the buses to drive without human intervention.