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Regulatory Hysteria About Children, Driverless Cars Combines to Shut Down Autonomous School Bus Project

The shuttle traveled eight miles per hour down a three-block route one day a week.

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PHOTOPQR/LE PARISIEN/MAXPPP

The federal government's tolerance of automated vehicle technology goes only so far, as evidenced by safety regulators killing an exceedingly modest driverless school bus project operated by private transit company Transdev outside Fort Myers, Florida.

Beginning in September, Transdev has been running a small, driverless school bus in the planned community of Babcock Ranch. Unlike other driverless car pilot programs that operate at full speeds on public roads, Transdev's school shuttle stuck to a single, three-block route all along sparsely trafficked, privately owned roads within town.

The electric vehicle Transdev deployed traveled at the snail's pace of eight miles per hour (although it did have the potential to reach a blistering 30 miles per hour), operated only on Fridays, and carried a maximum of five students, all of whom had to get their parents' permission to ride on the bus. There was also a safety operator on board who could take control of the vehicle if need be.

This still proved too much for regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). On Friday, the agency announced that it had sent a letter to Transdev demanding it cease its school bus operations immediately.

"Innovation must not come at the risk of public safety," said Heidi King, NHTSA Deputy Administrator in a statement. "Using a non-compliant test vehicle to transport children is irresponsible, inappropriate, and in direct violation of the terms of Transdev's approved test project."

Transdev says that it never received such a letter, but has nonetheless agreed to end driverless school bus service—only intended to last six weeks—one week early.

In a statement, the company said the exact same vehicle model—manufactured by French company Easymile—has been in use in Babcock Ranch since November 2017, providing weekend trips for both adult and child residents.

"This small pilot was operating safely, without any issues, in a highly-controlled environment," said the company in a statement. "Transdev believed it was within the requirements of the testing and demonstration project previously approved by NHTSA for ridership by adults and children using the same route."

In March 2018, the NHTSA approved the importation of the particular vehicle Transdev was using as a school bus for "testing and demonstration purposes", which the company took as green light to go ahead and begin transporting students.

The rub, according to the NHTSA, is that school buses fall into a different, more tightly regulated vehicle category that necessitates separate approval.

"School buses are subject to rigorous Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards that take into account their unique purpose of transporting children, a vulnerable population," reads the NHTSA's press release. In essence, the federal government's position is that it is safe for kids to ride these driverless shuttles on the weekend, but taking them to school puts them in impermissible danger.

At the end of the day, the effects of NHTSA's crackdown are pretty minor. The route is short enough that the kids who used to ride the shuttle can walk or bike instead. Nevertheless, that a project this small, and this controlled, can still attract the ire of federal regulators is a good indication of the kinds of policy barriers pioneers in the autonomous vehicle world are up against.