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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.

PHOTOPQR/LE PARISIEN/MAXPPPPHOTOPQR/LE PARISIEN/MAXPPPThe 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.

Photo Credit: PHOTOPQR/LE PARISIEN/MAXPPP

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Our children are too precious to leave in the hands of anything less than a chain-smoking alcoholic making minimum wage.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    He better be Union. Else the moral health is also at risk.

  • NoVaNick||

    You left out pedophile

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Let the little buggers walk.

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    "Let the little buggers walk"

    There are jurisdictions in the US where parents have been charged with child abuse/neglect for letting their kids walk to/from school on their own.

  • Stephen Lathrop||

    Slyfield, maybe what the kids encounter on the walk could have something to do with it. When I was in elementary school, the walk was less than a mile. But the only possible route led over an extremely narrow bridge about 200 feet long. One narrow traffic lane in each direction, and a stone pediment on the outside. The safest way to cross the bridge on foot was to get up on the 3-foot wide pediment, so you wouldn't be mashed against it if two cars happened to pass each other as they passed you. Problem was, the drop on the outside of the pediment was about 90-feet. Some kids rode their bikes across.

    In the town I live in now, there is a condo development on an island, connected to the shore by a 300-yard causeway. Perfectly reasonable for kids to walk across that to get to the school bus stop—in good weather. In a northeaster, it would be worth your life to try to cross it on foot.

    So yeah, maybe there are circumstances when it would be neglectful to let the kids walk.

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    No, the cases I'm referring to had nothing whatsoever to do with unusual risks from extreme weather, just a claim that the kids being out of adult supervision long enough to walk to/from school was itself abuse/neglect.

  • Wise Old Fool||

    And that is completely orthogonal to this topic. Please stay on topic.

  • JFree||

    The solution for mass transit for kids is -- bicycle buses.

    But I suppose cheap (like less than 5% of the cost of school buses), fun, exercise and transport that even kids can figure out how to operate is just far too complicated for stupid American parents.

  • Ben of Houston||

    To be fair, most school bus drivers make near-twice minimum, and smoking and drinking are absolutely banned. In fact, it's so heavily regulated that a number make the switch either to teacher of long-haul trucker, both of which have similar levels of stress but pay a lot more.

  • Stephen Lathrop||

    Ben, correct. But don't forget the finger printing, criminal background check, and multiple random drug tests per year. Plus annual physical from specially licensed doctor—not your own physician. Twice-annual if you are older than 70.

    On the driver test, you get one try to parallel park a 50-foot school bus in a 60-foot space—while leaving the back bumper no more than 18-inches from the rear of the space, and the right side of the bus no more than 12-inches from the curb. If any part of the bus goes over any side of the box, that ends the test and you fail.

    I don't know why I bother mentioning this stuff. The folks who hate public schools don't do it for any reason but ideology, so no amount of information will make any difference.

  • Dillinger||

    the specs seem like an okay test-run on driver-less vehicles

    not that i'm for driver-less vehicles. fuck that. Red Barchetta.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Wish more people appreciated driving. It's a very freeing experience. I guess part of it is a lot of people I know don't see a lot of value of going anywhere that isn't a city or a park.

  • Paloma||

    I love to drive. What I don't like is other drivers. They are either nervous bellies who go slower than me, or else maniacs who go faster.

    I myself am just right.

  • CE||

    So say we all.

  • Longtobefree||

    Correct.
    No one on this planet thinks that they are a bad driver.

  • NoVaNick||

    Love to drive too and they will have to take the keys to my own car out of my cold dead hands. I don't have a problem with autonomous vehicles per se, just that they will be forced on us, and it will impossible to go where I want to go, when I want to go, without the government or huge corporation tracking my every movement.

  • JoeJoetheIdiotCircusBoy||

    Good point and something I guess I haven't really thought about. Once driverless cars become the "main" mode of transportation in a few decades (assuming it does), are they still going to let us yahoos out to drive all by ourselves? Are we in essence just ceding (unknowingly) more personal autonomy to dictate our everyday paths in life?

  • I'm Not Sure||

    "they will be forced on us, and it will impossible to go where I want to go, when I want to go, without the government or huge corporation tracking my every movement."

    That's the optimistic outlook, bet it'll be more like...

    They will be forced on you, and it will impossible to go where you want to go, when you want to go, without the government or huge corporation deciding for you whether you can go at all.

  • BlueStarDragon||

    "Love to drive too and they will have to take the keys to my own car out of my cold dead hands. I don't have a problem with autonomous vehicles per se, just that they will be forced on us, and it will impossible to go where I want to go, when I want to go, without the government or huge corporation tracking my every movement."

    That's not the plan. what will happen is they will start to make cars that you can not drive. Then the government will make it illegal to make new cars that you can drive. Think about it when was the last car you buy that did not have the following a gps, onstar ( that tracks you) or car keys that do not cost 500 dollars to replace. How about a car that you can do a tune up on by your self.

  • Longtobefree||

    2004; Ford Crown Victoria. 200,000 miles so far, and no engine work yet.
    2004; Ford Mustang. 175,000 miles so far, and no engine work yet.
    (I recommend full synthetic oil and frequent air filter changes)

    About that tune up yourself part; too much arthritis now, but the last I worked on was a 1972 Chevelle.

  • Dillinger||

    i'm in love with my car. any machine i can drive. love it.

  • Dillinger||

    i'm in love with my car. any machine i can drive. love it.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Yeah, it's a truly freeing experience. Gives one the power to go out into the world in a way few things do.

  • Dan S.||

    Agreed. But driving three blocks on a private street doesn't really do it.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    People stopped appreciating driving when the government took the fun out of cars.

  • Paloma||

    They took the fun out of airplanes too.

  • ||

    The mistake they made was calling it a school bus.

  • NoVaNick||

    How about an electronic child delivery system?

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    A carnival ride would have been better.

  • Jerryskids||

    The route is short enough that the kids who used to ride the shuttle can walk or bike instead.

    Jesus Christ! Do you have any idea what the mortality rate is for kids walking and biking compared to kids riding driverless shuttles? Why not just suggest the kids should hitch a ride from the nice old man in the white panel truck with "Free Candy" spray-painted on the side?

  • Hank Phillips||

    Better still, Free Halloween Candy, with White Rabbit blaring!

  • Don't look at me!||

    It's not really autonomous if there is someone on board to take over.

  • NoVaNick||

    If and when there are fully autonomous school busses, there will probably be a robot on board to scream at the kids and break up fights

  • Rich||

    a single, three-block route all along sparsely trafficked, privately owned roads

    Emphasis added.

    [NHTSA] announced that it had sent a letter to Transdev demanding it cease its school bus operations immediately

    and Transdev responded with "No, thank you", right? RIGHT?!

  • Paloma||

    "You didn't build that road..."

  • Remember to keep it all polit||

    I see the unseen. The NHTSA did not want to shut down this school bus, but if it took no action, it would be pilloried for being idle while children's lives were at risk. To their credit, they waited until their letter would cause the least disruption -- literally the last week.

    Hats off to a job well done!

  • CE||

    3 blocks and they need a bus? No wonder kids are obese.

  • Ron||

    and in what i would assume is a wealthy neighborhood with little to no crime such that there is no worries if they walk

  • ||

    My Dead Wife, the Robot Car is a Black Mirror-equse podcast about autonomous cars: A satirical series about AI and autonomous vehicles

    "Matt gets a job test driving a new model robot car only to discover that the operating system's artificial intelligence is programmed to have his dead ex-wife's personality. Starring Matt Besser & Mary Holland. This episode features Dan Lippert as the anonymous company man who doesn't want to speak above his pay grade."
    My Dead Wife, The Robot Car: 1: Self Driving Me To Divorce

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Matt Besser & Mary Holland are good signs.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    I wonder if there's a union thug lurking in the background here.

  • Juice||

    The roads are privately owned. Tell the NHTSA to fuck right off. They don't have jurisdiction.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    The entire driverless vehicle idea strikes me as insane. That isn't taking the human element out, it is removing the human element in both time and space, and making sure than all the errors the human made are duplicated by every car running the software he wrote.

    Maybe that doesn't put YOU in mind of a huge flaming pile of wreckage.....

  • Longtobefree||

    No programmer will get into a vehicle controlled by "AI".

    Programming rule number 48; Testing proves the presence of bugs, not their absence.

  • Vernon Depner||

    Driverless cars are a pie-in-the-sky. Aint gonna happen. And not just because of the extreme technical difficulties and and inconveniences. If you think Americans freak out when you threaten to come for their guns, just try to take away their car keys.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Cops and "friends" do that thousands of times a day, even when they have to shoot someone to pry those keys out of their cold, dead fingers. Driverless cars are a direct threat to those paychecks and power trips.

  • BYODB||

    So, what, a hugely expensive 'beta' program that does a job children could do without assistance? Sounds about right. I wonder what the cost is on a per ride basis after all is said and done. I'm guessing thousands.

  • AD-RtR/OS!||

    Let he who sees no danger ensure the school against accident loss.

  • Stephen Lathrop||

    Some poorly informed comments here.

    Riding on school buses is pretty safe. But there are high hazards associated with operating equipment in close proximity to children who are not yet on the bus, or who just exited. Much of standard school bus design is for the purpose of managing those hazards. There is also the problem that schools buses must be equipped to manage automobile traffic at bus stops, especially to protect exiting bus passengers.

    You only have to look at the picture to see at least three reasons that vehicle shouldn't be in use as a school bus:

    1 No cross-over mirrors—means visibility in the lower front of the bus is insufficient, and also insufficient in the vicinity of the front wheels on both sides;

    2 No school bus warning lights—means the bus can't stop traffic at bus stops;

    3. No stop arm—means a missing critical tool for deterring scofflaws from passing a stopped bus.

  • BlueStarDragon||

    The bigger question I have is why are we sending kids to schools when they can use the internet to send the school to them?. get rid of the schools at 25 million a pop and all the drivers too.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Thank Ghawd that threat to the $15-an-hour minimum wage has been extirpated. But how do these robobuses compare to the competition in terms of fatalities per million passenger-miles? (Asking for a friend...)

  • emmanuel||

    Privately owned roads? There are no Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards on private roads. The NHTSA has nothing to say.

  • Longtobefree||

    Really?
    You probably still think the US Constitution is the supreme law of the land.

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