Feds Pull Brake on Florida’s Self-Driving School Bus

By: Bridget Clerkin November 6, 2018
New-age mobility firm Transdev had its self-driving school bus pilot program cancelled after the NHTSA realized its initial approval did not include transporting children.
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We’re only partly through the school year, but one Florida bus company has already flunked out.

A driverless shuttle that had been delivering students as young as kindergarten to and from school was labeled “unlawful” by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which moved earlier this month to shut the experiment down.

The self-driving school bus was launched in September by the new-age mobility firm Transdev. The company was dispatching the vehicle in the burgeoning town of Babcock Ranch, an area just outside of Fort Myers that is currently being built up as the nation’s first solar-powered community.

Seizing on the town’s pioneering spirit, the company had selected it as the place to unleash a full fleet of autonomous vehicles, including a number of driverless shuttles it said would eventually cater to as many as 50,000 residents.

But it never mentioned in its plans that some of those riders would be school children, according to the NHTSA. While the agency okayed the greater experiment, it said Transdev failed to apply for—or adhere to—the stricter policies involving the transportation of students, with Deputy Administrator Heidi King admonishing that “[i]nnovation must not come at the risk of public safety.”

“Innovation must not come at the risk of public safety.” —Deputy Administrator Heidi King

For their part, Transdev said the experiment was a pilot program, meant only to last for six weeks, and one they believed was within the confines of their greater NHTSA approval. The company said the plans were previously discussed with the NHTSA, and, indeed, the idea was heavily promoted online before its launch.

The vehicle in question—called the Easy Mile EZ10 Gen II—includes 12 seats, one of which was reserved for an onboard supervisor there to step in, just in the case of emergency. The rest were for students, ranging from grades K-7, though the autonomous bus purportedly never picked up more than 5 kids at a time.

According to Transdev, the vehicle never breached 8 MPH and was designed to favor the brakes.

It may be the first autonomous ride meant to fetch children, but it certainly won’t be the last. With all the might of Silicon Valley and the automotive industry behind it, the future is undoubtedly driverless: once adults stop learning how to drive, there will indeed be no one left to chauffeur the world’s students.

Still, the specialized transportation may be the last bastion for flesh-and-blood drivers. It was a year ago when the idea of a self-driving school bus was first floated by Seattle-based tech firm Teague, which dreamed up a prototype called Hannah to spark a conversation about the idea.

At the time, the concept was not well received by parents. Yet even after a year of studying up, it seems the idea still fails to make the grade.

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