Forget About Cars, Self-Driving School Buses Are Coming

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【Summary】Since autonomous vehicles are safer than human drivers, the move for cities and states to switch to self-driving school buses will be an easy decision, but a difficult one to complete.

Original Vineeth Joel Patel    Nov 12, 2017 1:10 PM PT
Forget About Cars, Self-Driving School Buses Are Coming

So far, the focus on an autonomous future is predominantly on taxis. Companies like Uber and Lyft, and even Mercedes-Benz, are looking for the perfect way to take drivers out of the equation to make ferrying users from one location to another in a safer, more efficient manner than human-operated vehicles. But there's another side of the self-driving scene that hasn't gotten a lot of attention, and that involves ferrying kids to school and back in an autonomous bus. 

Say Goodbye To Traditional School Buses

While self-driving technology still has a long way to go, Seattle-based design studio, Teague with some assistance from Boeing and Nike has envisioned what autonomous school buses might look like. According to Wired, Hannah, is the brainchild of the three companies and is designed to be a "futuristic self-driving pod" that's capable of taking up to six children at a time to school. The outlet claims that the self-driving pod moves similarly to a train, backwards and forward, has an intercom that allows an adult to give orders – most likely to keep a lockdown on any bullying – and can automatically reroute itself to the hospital in the case of an emergency. 

Autonomous tech still has a lot of kinks that need to be worked out before going mainstream. And the public's opinion on autonomous vehicles will need to improve drastically before companies can even think about having parents put their children into a pod that can drive itself. A report by Morning Consult and Politico in September revealed that only 22 percent of registered voters in the United States believe that driverless cars are safer than human-operated ones. If adults don't think self-driving cars are safe, they definitely won't put their children into an autonomous pod. 

"How you transport kids in the future, in an autonomous world, ends up being a proxy for trust in driverless vehicles in general," said Devin Liddell, a brand strategist at Teague, reports Wired

Updating School Buses Is An Uphill Battle

As the outlet reports, school buses are some of the slowest vehicles to be fitted with new technology. Do you remember what your school bus looked like? Well, there's a high chance that it hasn't changed a lot since then. "Technology will typically come out on cars first and then roughly five years later, you'll start to see commercial vehicles," said Fred Andersky, who's in charge of marketing and government affairs for Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems, an automotive parts company. 

School buses, though, are even further behind that schedule. "Then school buses tend to be 10-year plus," he said. Why the lag in the acceptance of technology? Especially as new tech has made vehicles safer than ever, which one would assume is a high priority for children. Well, as Wired points out, school buses are already incredibly safe. According to the outlet, children that ride the school bus, as opposed to hitching a ride with someone, are 70 percent more likely to get to school safely. Less than six school-age children in the U.S. die inside a school transportation vehicle annually, reports the outlet. 

The other major thing that holds buses back is funding, which is always on its last leg. "Not that new technologies are outrageously expensive, but obviously with school districts you're using taxpayer money," said Anderksy. "The basic argument is, we're not having crashes. Why spend on technology?" 

Teague Hannah 2.jpg

How Teague's Hannah Can Keep Kids Safer

Hannah, though, as Wired reports, would make the trip even more safer and it doesn't just involve the fact that there's no human driver behind the wheel of the machine. As Wired points out, school children are most at risk when they're boarding or getting off of a bus. Hannah looks to make this situation safer by picking and dropping kids off right in front of their houses. How is that safer? Well kids wouldn't have to walk to a designated bus stop and then wait on the side of the street for the bus to show up. There's no guessing involved with Hannah. 

Being a small pod that could only fit up to six kids, it would kill the traditional school bus stop and allow for quicker, more convenient trips, claims Wired. While not directly related to technology, it would also help kids wake up later and not have to worry about missing the bus, which is something that happened to this writer on multiple occasions. 

According to Wired, Hannah will be able to recognize children by their faces, ensuring that the right one boards and departs at the correct location. The driverless pod, as the outlet claims, would also provide students with reminders on their extracurricular activities. While the focus on Hannah is to provide children with a safe trip to and from school, it could also be used for other activities, including delivery packages throughout the day or after its school run is complete. Traditional school buses, on the other hand, are only used two times a day – to pick kids up and drop them off. 

Distant Future Or Near Future?

Once again, Hannah is a look into the future – the way off distant future. But the prototype showcases what's in store for school buses if they were to become automated. Before they go completely driverless, though, school buses will get modern safety features found on current vehicles. These include things like blindspot detection, automatic emergency braking, and maybe even laser-guided cruise control. That kind of tech, as Andersky points out, is still some time away, claims Wired

The autonomous pod would also help counties solve their driver shortage problem, which is brought on by the difficult, low-paying task of being a bus driver. Drivers are expected to keep all of the children in line, which isn't an easy task when there's approximately 50 of them, and dealing with difficult parents, as well as taxing school districts. Then there's the fact that the median bus driver makes just $30,000 a year. 

With that information in mind, Wired believes that the traditional school bus driver could morph into a fleet manager role where they would keep a watchful eye on children in the self-driving pod and ensure that all is well. 

"The school bus industry would be well-served to look at this," said Liddell. "While they might initially recoil at it, what does it mean for the next 10, 15 years of pupil transportation?" 

It's important to note that the companies have, at least for the moment, no interest in bringing Hannah to public roads, but instead is using the concept as an idea for the future. Everything in the future is expected to be autonomous and embracing self-driving school buses now is important to ensure that things transition smoothly in the future. 

via: Wired, Teague

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