As AVs become the talk of the hour, one company looks at the future of school buses – and how the self-driving school bus can improve school commutes in the future. TEAGUE – a Seattle-based design consultancy that works on innovation in travel and technology, is behind the driver-less school bus and is aiming to revolutionize the timeless big yellow bus. The company claims that it is “re-inventing an American icon for the Age of Autonomy” by reimagining the yellow school bus that has featured so prominently in everything from children’s films to nursery rhymes. The bus – dubbed Hannah – wants to carry K-8 children to and from school, all without a human driver.
For parents across the U.S., the primary concern for potentially allowing their children to board a driverless school bus is safety, which is an understandable concern. TEAGUE, however, has raced to explain how Hannah will be safe enough to earn parents’ trust. In addition to facial recognition technology, which already exists in ATMs and smartphones worldwide, the revamped school bus will be equipped with multiple on-board cameras to ensure an active presence on the bus at all times. Another concern is how Hannah can prevent bullying, which has always been a school-bus phenomenon worldwide. TEAGUE suggests that having all-seeing eyes on the children, who will be seated facing each other, six at a time, will discourage the kids from bullying one another.
Hannah is designed to pick up each child from their respective home, the advantage being that children do not have to travel to bus stops to go to school, removing the risks associated with crossing streets. According to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the greatest danger for children riding school buses occurs when children cross the street as they get off the school bus. By being palindromic, Hannah is envisioned to travel both forward and backward, with no front or back side, giving it the agility that current school buses do not have and allowing it to drop kids off on both sides of the street.
The American school bus fleet is composed of 480,000 buses, which transport more than half of American school children every day, making it, according to TEAGUE, “the largest form of mass transit” in the U.S. today. Many school buses are assigned a three-tiered bus schedule, transporting students from elementary, middle and high schools within the same vicinity on the same day. When buses aren’t transporting students, they are idle for more than 94% out of 24 hours a day. This is where the prospect of repurposing the self-driving bus comes in.
The mastermind behind Hannah claims the autonomous vehicles can double as “profit centers” rather than “cost centers,” which most school buses are when they are parked in a lot in between pick-ups and drop-offs. The lack of any kind of productive activity in between shifts makes the job of driving a school bus less attractive to many, making the buses themselves even less lucrative to run. Since Hannah is designed to stay in the neighborhood it serves, operators like Lyft or Starbucks could utilize the Hannah as a delivery vehicle. Similar to projects like Amazon Locker, the autonomous vehicle would double up its operation while minimizing costs and potentially reducing the number of vehicles on the road.
Granted, Hannah is still little more than a concept and there’s no telling if it will catch on anytime soon. It does serve to reason though, that a driverless future will need a smart solution to ensure that children are safely transported to and from school in the most efficient – and safest – manner possible.
According to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the school bus is the safest way for children to commute to school – 70 times safer than cars, in fact, making it infinitely more difficult to imagine how the Hannah could overtake the iconic yellow bus to become the vehicle of choice for parents. One of the features that the NHTSA cites as ensuring the safety of children traveling on school buses is the sheer size and design of the buses, which are instantly recognizable by other drivers on the road.
Designed with the understanding that AVs are primarily about connecting vehicles on the road, the concept behind Hannah is not just to remove drivers from vehicles, but, rather, to make the vehicles more efficient in the process. While the vision of Hannah as an attractive, highly-optimized, safe vehicle fits in a future world without drivers, until AVs become the norm, it is unlikely that it will truly replace the school bus anytime soon.
A 2016 study by MIT about the ethics of autonomous vehicles found that people were receptive to the idea of having autonomous vehicles acting in a utilitarian fashion on the road (i.e. acting to ensure the greatest good for the greatest number of people). The respondents claimed that they would accept the death of a single occupant of a car if that was for the greater good, with one catch: none of the respondents wanted to be in the car at the time that the choice was made. In other words, while people are more willing to accept having smarter vehicles on the road and aware of how these vehicles will make choices, they are still not willing to bear the consequences of those choices themselves.