Federal government shuts down self-driving school bus program in Florida

 In Artificial Intelligence, Infrastructure, Smart Cities

The Transdev shuttle “bus” on the streets of Babcock Ranch, from which it was recently removed. (Courtesy Transdev)

The dreams of a fully autonomous school bus are on hold for a little while longer, at least in Babcock Ranch, Florida. On October 19, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) ordered a complete halt to the self-driving school bus program in the Florida town, which had been transporting kids to-and-from school along a three-block stretch.

Transdev North America had been operating the Easy Mile EZ10 Gen II shuttle as part of a two-month pilot program within the fully solar-powered, tech-forward community. The shuttle, which seats 12 and included a human supervisor ready to take over in case the “bus” encountered an unexpected obstacle, has a top speed of 8-miles-per-hour and was programmed to brake automatically. The bus was just one part of Transdev’s initiative to launch a network of autonomous shuttles (AVs) across North America, with Babcock Ranch as a testing ground.

While the shuttle never picked up more than five students at a time, only operated one day a week during the five-week trial period, and only picked up and dropped off passengers in designated areas, the NHTSA didn’t mince words, calling the shuttle “unlawful.” According to the NHTSA, Transdev had only been granted permission to import their shuttles as demonstration vehicles and not to transport children.

Children boarding the Transdev bus shuttle in Babcock Ranch. (Courtesy Transdev)

“Innovation must not come at the risk of public safety,” said Heidi King, NHTSA Deputy Administrator, in a press release.  “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.”

While the NHTSA claims it wasn’t informed about Transdev’s plans to use one of its shuttles to ferry students, the pilot program had been written about extensively and Transdev released several promotional videos touting their self-driving bus.

Transdev, for its part, claims to have discussed the school bus shuttle with the NHTSA but that they had never received a letter asking them to stop operating it, and that they voluntarily shut down the program. The company also claims that every safety precaution was taken and that the shuttle was only operated along quite private roads.

In its own release, Transdev states that “This small pilot was operating safely, without any issues, in a highly controlled environment. 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.”

Whether the shutdown was over a miscommunication or because Transdev demonstrably overstepped its certification remains to be seen.

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