BABCOCK RANCH, Fla.—Children may someday ride in self-driving school buses, but—as a Florida community learned the hard way—that mode of transportation is not yet ready.
Federal safety regulators last month demanded that the community stop carrying students on an autonomous shuttle designed to look like a school bus. A cease-and-desist letter sent by National Traffic Highway Safety Administration officials said using the vehicle for that purpose "puts the safety of children and others at risk."
Since the order, the shuttle has stopped trundling along its three-block route. The demand abruptly ended a pilot that community leaders in Babcock Ranch, a planned development northeast of Fort Myers, had begun five weeks earlier as part of an effort to incorporate innovative technologies into their housing developments.
It may have been a lofty goal to put schoolchildren on self-driving buses. Despite being the largest public vehicle fleet in the U.S., with 480,000 buses transporting children to and from school each day, according to the National Association for Pupil Transportation, school buses have received relatively few of the technological advances found in many other vehicles. The iconic yellow buses of today closely resemble those of the 1970s. They don't have seat belts, many don't have air conditioning and the vast majority run on diesel fuel.
"There are different regulations for school buses," said Dirk Brassat, vice president of engineering for Faurecia. The fleets are expensive to maintain and upgrade, and regulations keep a tight lid on how experimental school bus makers can be, he said. "So progress will be slower."
Still, school buses are the safest form of ground transportation in the U.S., according to NHTSA. Bus accidents account for four to six child deaths a year, NHTSA said, and students who take the bus are 70 times more likely to arrive safely than those who arrive by car.