The Lake Washington School District's Bus Driver's Association collects 884 toys for children in need.
Could a self-driving school bus someday be the norm, leaving the drivers of today to become vehicle monitors who can devote more attention to keeping their riders safe and out of trouble?
Google’s self-driving car project, which has seen success so far on both freeways and city streets, seems to suggest that it’s possible. Self-driving car proponents claim since most accidents are caused by human error — distracted or impaired driving or poor judgment — the technology will reduce traffic congestion due to fewer accidents, resulting in fewer injuries and lives lost and more freedom for those unable to drive.
It will, however, be quite some time and several technological iterations before we get there, and there are still many industry concerns and logistical and liability questions to answer.
More generally, connected vehicle technology (v2v) and automated vehicle technology are currently making great strides for passenger vehicles and trucks, for example, maintaining safe speeds, preventing lane changes that would cause collisions, and sending alerts of unseen pedestrians, but what about for school buses?
In the meantime, school bus manufacturers are keeping pace with offerings such as advanced telematics and air disc brakes.
Self-driving car testing
What if school bus technology advanced to the point where the “driver” was, in fact, no longer human? Google has been testing self-driving cars on the road since 2009, according to the company’s Google+ page, using its self-driving technology, comprised of software and sensors that can detect objects miles away and share environmental data, on Lexus cars on California freeways. An introduction on the Google Self-Driving Car Project Google page says the company developed prototype vehicles over the summer.
In addition to California, Florida; Michigan; Nevada; and Washington, D.C., are allowing these cars on the road for testing purposes, requiring a driver to be present in the vehicle who can take charge if necessary. California is even requiring special permits for driverless cars, of which Google has won 25 of the first 29 being issued, and Audi will be the first vehicle manufacturer to receive one of the permits.
Ralph Knight, administrator on special assignment, fleet manager at Napa (Calif.) Valley Unified School District’s transportation department, says that the district has had a brief phone conversation with Google about school buses: the vehicle design, computer generation and engine function.
In terms of existing passenger vehicles, General Motors (GM) CEO Mary Barra said in September at the ITS World Congress, an annual conference featuring the latest information technology developments, held in Detroit this year, that GM will introduce a 2017 Cadillac model equipped with a feature called Super Cruise, a semi-autonomous technology that drivers can use to put the car into autonomous mode while on the highway. It will maintain a safe speed and use lasers and cameras to ensure the driver doesn’t drift from their lane or get too close to other cars. Additionally, Honda tested an automated vehicle prototype at the ITS World Congress, automotive components manufacturer Denso Corp. demonstrated v2v technology, and Tesla, according to Business Insider, is working on driverless car technology.
Many in the transportation industry whom SBF reached out to for this story say they find the self-driving car concept exciting. The main question asked, though, was exactly how will that technological leap forward safely occur?
Michael Martin, executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT), says one of many safety issues is the human factor; currently, even self-driving cars need an attentive driver.
“Human error causes 90% of all accidents, so I think the theory is that if you remove the human element, you’ll significantly reduce accidents, and when you use active safety technology and autonomous technology, especially focusing on crash prevention or pre-collision safety, [you’ll] reduce distracted driving,” he says.
However, whether the technology will be widespread enough to see significant benefits will be an issue. For the few initial automated or self-driving cars on the road, there are no other vehicles to communicate with, Martin points out. “There’s also an infrastructure challenge across the board, not just for school transportation; a lot of autonomous technology requires [vehicle-to-infrastructure technology], technology-enabled roadways, and until we have smart roads, having smarter cars is not necessarily going to be a [significant] benefit. You’re going to have to wait for those things to balance out over time.”
Tim Flood, president of the National School Transportation Association (NSTA), along with Martin, says that although self-driving cars may be “a cure for distracted driving, we still need to see what the unintended consequences are.”
Security is a major concern among many who were interviewed, and John Horton, bus driver, Douglas County (Colo.) School District, outlined potential scenarios, speculating that knowledge of a self-driving school bus could potentially attract terrorists, kidnappers, and divorced parents embroiled in custody battles. When he conducted an informal straw poll among his peers and supervisors on the subject, many said having an adult on board for student safety and behavior management would be essential, Horton says.
“The kids [may] say, ‘Hey, we’re riding with no driver, we can do whatever we want,’” he explains. “There will probably be cameras all over the place. However, there’s nothing like having military boots on the ground. Young people on a bus with no driver, that’s almost temptation to do something.”
And that driver should be CDL-qualified, he adds, in case of a maintenance issue, so the vehicle could be driven back to the shop. “You don’t want a driverless car [or school bus] to break down at a point where it would cause a problem, and you need quick access for rescue or evacuation should something go wrong.”
Horton also wonders who police would ticket in the case of an accident or fire, and what resources would be available on the vehicle to notify the authorities when help is needed.
Summing up a consensus among drivers, transportation directors and association presidents who were interviewed, Flood says the technology could help expedite route and stop changes, reduce driver distractions and enable transportation personnel on the bus to “more actively monitor students while facing them instead of occasionally looking through a small oblong mirror. This could help to reduce the occurrences of bullying and students getting out of their seats.”
Automated vehicle technology
A number of the automobile manufacturers have been implementing various levels of autonomy already, such as park assist, adaptive cruise control — the car maintains a safe speed behind the car in front of it, and if that car slows down or stops, the car equipped with the technology will stay a safe distance away — particularly in high end, more expensive vehicles.
Traditional automobile manufacturers are saying they are going to continue to advance autonomous vehicle technology incrementally as they become more comfortable and as people become more comfortable, and that it’s an evolutionary process, says Scott Belcher, president and CEO of ITS America, an organization that advances research, development and deployment of intelligent transportation systems to improve the nation’s surface transportation system.
Other companies, such as Toyota, have said they don’t ever envision what’s called level 4 autonomy, or fully autonomous vehicles, and that a human driver must always be involved, according to Belcher.
On the other side of the debate are Google, Tesla and some other automobile manufacturers that see a more revolutionary transition, going to completely automated vehicles much more rapidly, Belcher says, because they believe that autonomous vehicles are safer than vehicles with human drivers.
“It’s an interesting tension between the legacy automotive industry and the high-tech industry,” he adds. “Tesla is now doing it and [Google] put hundreds of thousands of miles on the road with autonomous vehicles. There are still some challenges, particularly in the urban setting, but I think they feel comfortable that they are addressing those challenges.”
The next challenge will then be policies addressing liability, insurance and privacy. Some parents may think the technology is safer than the driver, while others may think a human driver is necessary. We also may face more complicated discussions about buses than about personal vehicles; an individual makes their own decision about riding in an autonomous vehicle. However, “when you’re talking about an autonomous vehicle with 60 kids in it, there are many more people who have to be a part of the conversation,” Belcher notes.
“Those are tougher questions and those aren’t technical questions,” he adds. “Even if we get to a technical solution, we’ll still have a number of interesting policy questions to address.”
Google’s driverless cars aim to make travel safer, faster
Helping improve mobility for everyone, particularly those who cannot drive, is Google’s aim in its Self-Driving Car Project.
According to a post on Google’s project page on May 27 by Chris Urmson, director of the Self-Driving Car Project, self-driving cars will cut down on drive times, allow seniors to keep their freedom, and eliminate drunk and distracted driving.
Part of the project entailed building prototype vehicles designed to operate safely and autonomously without requiring human intervention, relying on its software and sensors, which eliminate blind spots next to the vehicle and can detect objects up to 200 yards in all directions, to help protect against accidents such as those caused by red-light runners, according to the website. Additionally, the speed of the first vehicles is capped at 25 mph.
Google enlisted drivers to work with early-stage prototypes on the company’s test track, taking them through various tests and terrains, and simulated a busy street environment, with “traffic lights, construction zones and wobbling cyclists.”
The company says on its web pages that although its drivers can safely test a vehicle that doesn’t have a steering wheel, it has fit a temporary steering wheel and set of manual controls into each vehicle to comply with California law, which requires any vehicles still being tested to have manual controls. It plans to remove the controls after the prototypes are finished being tested and permitted.
Google plans to run a small pilot program in California in the next couple of years, according to the post.
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