Autonomous vehicle technology is still in its early stages. There’s testing on public roads, but with very strict parameters. Companies can’t simply develop a vehicle and set it lose on the streets. Instead, they have to apply for permission for any kind of testing. One company overstepped its bounds by using a fleet of driverless shuttles as school buses in Florida.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Transdev North America was operating its shuttles as school buses illegally. The vehicles were approved for testing, but not for use as school buses.
It was back in March of this year that they were granted permission to temporarily import the shuttles for testing and demonstration purposes. That’s a far cry from using them as school buses. NHTSA claims they didn’t disclose this intended purpose or ask permission for this type of operation.
Even if they had, it’s unlikely permission would have been granted. School buses have rigorous standards and the government is not flexible when it comes to the safety of our kids.
The buses were operating in the community of Babcock Ranch in Florida, but it wasn’t a secret. The company issued a press release in August talking about its new shuttle service and detailing the project. Transdev even released video showing the school buses in action.
The shuttles picked kids up from designated areas and transported them to school. There was a safety attendant on each shuttle so the kids weren’t left entirely alone, but that doesn’t negate the problem of using these vehicles in a way that was never approved.
Babcock Ranch is a sustainable town located near Fort Myers, Florida. It’s a solar-powered community focused on providing environmentally-friendly transportation alternatives. While the shuttle service was initially slated for limited use, the plan was for it to eventually be something parents could call on demand.
NHTSA notified Transdev that they would need to immediately stop using their shuttles as school buses or risk civil penalties and the voiding of the original permissions given to import the vehicles in the first place.
How things went sideways with the plan for the autonomous school buses is unclear. Transdev was proud of the service and made no effort to conceal it, but failed to obtain the approvals necessary to implement their plan. As yet, the company has made no comment.