The
Driverless
School
Bus.

Re-inventing an
American Icon
for the Age of
Autonomy.

The emerging era of autonomous vehicles is widely envisioned and discussed by technologists, designers, policy makers, city planners, insurers, ethicists, and more. Both technology companies and carmakers are vividly imagining and prototyping our commutes of the future. But what about the future commutes of our kids?

AMERICAN SCHOOL BUS FLEET
480,000
What will happen to the iconic yellow school bus when our vehicles become predominantly autonomous?

This question is unanswered so far, which is strange considering that the American school bus fleet—comprised of some 480,000 vehicles—transports more than half of America’s school children each day. Put more simply: school buses are the largest form of mass transit in the United States.

Inspired by this unanswered question, TEAGUE’s Hannah is a conceptual reinvention of K-8 transportation that illuminates the operational, financial, and even social innovations within an entirely new approach to student transportation in the age of autonomy.

As an introduction, it’s essential to note that autonomous transportation is more than just driverless transportation. Autonomous transportation is fundamentally about connected vehicles; that is, vehicles that are connected to other vehicles, connected to infrastructure, and connected to data and users in ways that enable dynamic decision-making. Connected is the backbone for everything smart about an autonomous vehicle and how it interacts with other vehicles and the world at large. With this emphasis on connected foremost in mind, Hannah is designed around three core principles that we believe are imperative to the future of student transportation.

01/

Points
Not
Spokes.

There are unintentional injustices built into the hub-and-spoke routes of public transportation, and these injustices are especially prominent in school bus systems. Today, stops are organized to gather many kids at fixed points that are serviced by very large vehicles in a fixed sequence. Depending on where their stop is along the sequence, some kids may have to wake up earlier than their peers who are picked up later. Or, some parents may even have to leave for work later than other parents with kids earlier in the sequence. This may sound trivial, but even 15-minute differences in the mornings and afternoons of each school day add up to hundreds of hours across a school year that are gained or lost inequitably.

Hannah subverts the hub-and-spoke system of routing altogether, enabling vehicles to operate point-to-point.

Hannah makes significant departures from this type of system. First, the fleet isn’t comprised of 50+-seat behemoths, but instead much more communal six-seaters. This vehicle size subverts the hub-and-spoke system of routing altogether, enabling Hannah vehicles to operate point-to-point, picking up every kid directly in front of their residence. Why is this important? Hub-and-spoke routes are not only inconvenient and unfair, they’re also unsafe because the centralized stops invariably require kids to cross streets. This puts them at risk from other vehicles during busy morning and afternoon commute times. But it also puts them at risk from school buses themselves. According to NHTSA, “nearly two-thirds (64%) of the school-age pedestrians fatally injured in school-transportation- related crashes were struck by school buses or vehicles functioning as school buses (2006 to 2015).” So, while federal regulations now require that school buses feature stop-arms and other safety equipment, risks remain for kids as they cross in front of- or behind buses and other vehicles. Hannah eliminates this scenario entirely by making every pick up and drop off on the curb-side of a kid’s home or school. To do this, Hannah vehicles don’t actually have a front or back “end”; they are palindromic—thus the name, “Hannah”—which allows them to move forward and backward, and left and right, seamlessly, with sliding doors and ramps on both sides. This ambidextrousness also streamlines routing and re-routing to optimize its point-to-point approach since a Hannah vehicle never has to take a turn to get on the “right” side of the street.

02/

Utilization
and
Utility.

Contemporary school bus fleets are typically parked in off-site yards during off hours, which is where they actually spend most of their time. In reviews of sample routes for an elementary school in the Seattle area, we found that these school buses travel about six miles from the bus yard to get to their first stop. (As a side note, this is a much smaller distance than those in school districts with more sprawling geographies than Seattle’s.) Beginning with their first stops for students, these routes are less than two miles start-to-finish and have students onboard for only 15 minutes. Assuming that each bus operates two additional, similar routes for middle school and high school students (a three-tier practice used by many districts), this means that these school buses are, conservatively, transporting students just 6% of the time during most 24-hour periods. While utilization rates obviously vary between districts, these lost hours have huge costs for school districts. First, school buses are expensive machines. Depending on how they’re equipped, price tags between $85,000 and $110,000 are not uncommon for new buses. That’s quite a capital expenditure to have parked idle most of the time. Second, even when in use, school districts pay for all that “deadhead” mileage back and forth to bus yards. These bus yards are real estate and facilities that they also have to pay for. 

Current bus
utilization can
be as low as

6%
Instead of
deadheading
to and from
bus yards,
Hannah vehicles
are designed
to stay in the
neighborhoods
they serve.

Bus drivers are also penalized in this inefficient scenario, since most drivers work a split shift—making runs in the mornings and afternoons, with a midday break that’s often hard to fill with additional employment. The prospect of working mornings and afternoons— but not in-between, all while typically earning less than other drivers with commercial driver’s licenses—helps explain why there is a nationwide shortage of bus drivers . 

Hannah challenges this broken status quo by solving for deadheading, vehicle downtime, and driver shortages. Instead of deadheading to and from bus yards, Hannah vehicles are designed to stay in the neighborhoods they serve, doubling as roving Amazon lockers, Starbucks delivery vehicles, or charitable donation bins (just to name a few) during the mid-day- and evening hours when they’re not transporting students. This turns the vehicles into potential profit centers rather than cost centers, all with minimal labor involved. Drivers who are under-employed in current systems can potentially be fully employed as fleet managers who remotely monitor Hannah vehicles transporting students, and then facilitate their quick transitions into other uses. How quick? With interiors ready-made for standardized lockers that are simply rolled into place, and swappable panels (or electrochromic paints now being developed) for transforming the exteriors, these transitions can be accomplished in minutes. 

03/

Right-
sized
For
Community.

There’s an elephant in the room here: Hannah is driverless, and driverless means there’s no supervision, right? While it’s true that Hannah vehicles are driverless, Hannah actually delivers better supervision than today’s school buses. To understand this, consider whether it’s actually possible for a driver to supervise 50+ kids seated in rows of seats a dozen deep while simultaneously driving. The answer is most likely not. And yet we are conditioned by this illusion of supervision, so much so that a driverless school vehicle might feel like a non-starter to some. However, any fears will eventually be quelled, because the supervisory powers of Hannah’s connected vehicles far surpass the overtaxed pair of eyes and ears on today’s school buses. As already mentioned, Hannah vehicles are six-seaters. In addition to enabling point-to-point routes, this right-sizes the number of kids in any one vehicle to be supervised in the first place.

Compared to one forward-facing human, Hannah is always on, always connected, and always ready to act.

Next, Hannah’s artificial intelligence integrates with outward-facing door cameras to control access to the vehicle through facial-recognition technology (which already features in existing ATMs and smartphones, so it’s no longer science fiction). Interior cameras give Hannah the opportunity to prompt verbalized reminders about seat belts or forgotten items, and also enable remote fleet monitors to see what’s happening onboard in real time. That’s important, because it allows for immediate intervention in case of an emergency. In sharp contrast to a human driver, Hannah always knows who should be onboard, where they’re picked up and dropped off, and each kid’s unique after-school schedules. Hannah knows all of this and can simultaneously communicate with nearby fleet monitors and the students onboard, as well as parents and educators wherever they are. Compared to one forward-facing human, Hannah is always on, always connected, and always ready to act. All of this adds up to safer, more nurturing environment for students that’s more akin to a carpool. Here, six is greater than 50.

So what big questions
does Hannah pose?

The first is if we’re willing to put our kids in driverless vehicles, which is a question that’s just as much about autonomous vehicles in general. The second is about the size of the school bus industry’s appetite for innovation. Some within that industry will likely recoil at Hannah, at least initially. That’s to be expected; it’s what always happens when a sub-optimal status quo is confronted by the future that’s coming to eat its lunch. Expensive machines that are dramatically underutilized and must be operated by increasingly harder-to-find operators is a perfect storm for disruption.

How closely does Hannah resemble the future of pupil transportation?

So, that industry as a whole would be well-served to consider how closely Hannah resembles the future of pupil transportation—and then work toward building that future in the near term. Lastly, Hannah hints at potentially even more dramatic disruptions of the pupil transportation industry. That is, could Amazon or Lyft—while deploying a future of roving, community-centric delivery vehicles—take over the largest form of mass transit in the United States as a sort of side gig? Hannah is an initial answer, a prototype from the future, to these questions.

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