Could computers replace school bus drivers?
That may sound like a far-fetched question, but it’s essentially the same concept that was tied to the trucking industry in a recent Los Angeles Times article.
The story, alarmingly titled “Robots could replace 1.7 million American truckers in the next decade,” presented evidence that automated vehicle technology could soon be used to haul freight on the nation’s highways without the need for human hands on the wheel.
For example, a company called Otto — now owned by Uber — is currently testing self-driving trucks, which it touts as a way to avoid accidents and increase safety in long-haul transit.
The company has developed a self-driving kit to retrofit existing trucks with sensors, software, and other equipment. According to its website, “Otto hardware and software is tuned for the consistent patterns and easy to predict road conditions of highway driving.”
A video on the website shows a white big rig emblazoned with the Otto logo cruising along a highway while the supposed “driver” sits in the rear of the cab, calmly writing in a notepad.
Part of the company’s message is that the self-driving system would allow human truck drivers to sleep while their vehicle moves itself down the highway, preventing fatigue-related crashes. Taking the driverless concept a step further, one of Otto’s co-founders, Lior Ron, told the Los Angeles Times that the company’s technology could eventually enable trucks to navigate the long highway stretches of their trips with no human on board.
So, moving back to my opening question, could this technology work for school buses?
At first blush, the answer seems to be a resounding “no,” mainly due to an important distinction: Long-haul trucks carry lifeless cargo, while school buses carry living, breathing children. Just as young pupils wouldn’t be left alone in a classroom with a robot for a teacher, they wouldn’t be piled onto a self-driving school bus with no adult on board.
Another key difference is the operating conditions. Unlike long-haul trucks on the open highway, school bus routes primarily cover residential areas. Also, school buses make frequent stops to load and unload passengers, who often must cross the street in front of the bus.
Many SBF readers will recall that we delved into this topic in 2014, with an article titled “Will Ramped-Up Vehicle Tech Bring Smarter, Safer School Buses?”
Two years later, there’s even more ramping up on the automation front, such as Uber testing self-driving cars in Pittsburgh. The feds have even gotten in on the action: In September, the Department of Transportation issued a policy for testing and deployment of automated vehicles.
As our Nicole Schlosser noted in the 2014 SBF article, automated and connected vehicle technologies have the potential to enhance safety in a number of ways that don’t necessarily entail replacing the driver. Examples include collision mitigation systems, adaptive cruise control, and pedestrian detection.
Furthermore, it’s not hard to imagine how more advanced automation could make school bus drivers’ jobs more manageable — for example, freeing them up to address behavioral issues or other student concerns while the bus is moving.
As long as children go to school, they’ll need a way to get there, and so far there’s no better vehicle for the task than the yellow bus. If autonomous school buses are in our future, they will still need a pupil transportation professional on board to keep an eye on the kids and to make sure that loading and unloading are carried out safely.
As truck driver Scott Spindola told the Los Angeles Times, “You need a human being to deal with some of the problems we have out on the road.”
That’s doubly true for school buses.