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Would You Send Your Kid to School in a Self-Driving Bus?

By: Bridget Clerkin November 8, 2017
"Hannah" is a six-passenger autonomous school bus concept from Seattle design firm Teague.

If Forrest Gump were set in the near future, rather than the not-too-distant past, the title character may not ever meet Jenny on that fateful first trip to school—but he would meet Hannah.

That’s the name being given to the world’s first self-driving school bus, a concept vehicle being dreamed up by Seattle-based tech design company, Teague.

While still just an idea, the prototype is meant to spark discussion on how the nation’s current school bus fleet, comprised of more than 480,000 vehicles, will adapt to a driver-free future, according to the company. Responsible for carting more than half the nation’s children to and from school every day, the vehicles could be considered the largest form of public transportation in the United States, the design firm notes.

The autonomous option Teague proposes would be much smaller and nimbler than today’s school bus models, seating just 6 passengers at a time and coming with the ability to drive both forwards and backwards. (The skill is what earned the vehicle its palindromic moniker.)

And aside from replacing hands on the wheel and feet on the pedals with computer programs, the self-driving vehicle would swap a bus driver’s eyes for several lenses.

The vehicles would be outfitted with dozens of cameras used to ensure the correct children are onboard and that all passengers are well-behaved. Outward-facing cameras would control access to the vehicle via face recognition, Teague imagines, while monitoring devices set inside the bus would have the ability to detect certain behaviors, and offer prompts about wearing seat belts or picking up forgotten items. (The cameras could also be watched by fleet employees, who could take control of the bus in case of an emergency, Teague said.)

But the company wants to change more than the school bus’ shape and operator—it wants to reimagine the way bus routes are mapped altogether.

With fewer passengers, the robo-cars would work smaller, shorter bursts of pick-ups, fetching each passenger directly in front of their home and dropping off students in a continuous loop.

The move could help reduce the amount of deadly accidents involving school-aged pedestrians, Teague argued. Between 2005 to 2014, nearly 64% of such incidents were caused when a student was struck by a school bus, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Even that statistic is unlikely to sway many parents to entrust their children to such experimental technology. (In fact, more adults across the country reported negative feelings about self-driving vehicles compared to this time last year, a recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology study found.)  

Still, getting society to accept the idea of sending students off to school on a driverless bus, Teague said, would be a true sign that the technology has aced its final exam.

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