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Evolving Tech & Safety Concerns

Did you see the Super Bowl commercial with the Tesla driving past a stopped school bus
with the stop arm extended and running over demonstration dolls that replicated children? It aired regionally to select audiences in California, Florida, Georgia, Texas, and Washington, D.C.

My first reaction was how is this possible? You would think a major electric vehicle manufacturer like Tesla would have figured this out already, but it seems to be a glaring issue in the auto pilot software. Telsa’s Full Self Driving (FSD) software doesn’t appear to always recognize children in loading and unloading zone.

The software, which is technically still in beta, is supposed to detect and avoid obstacles and other vehicles A software expert claims otherwise, noting that a Tesla using FSD cannot differentiate between a school bus or a garbage truck with its hazards on.

The software expert, Dan O’Dowd, and his organization the Dawn Project are behind the commercial. The goal of the Dawn Project is “making computers safe for humanity,” according to its website. The organization also ran a Super Bowl ad last year, highlighting the case of a 17-year-old North Carolina boy, who was struck by a Tesla after exiting his school bus last March.

It’s a cautionary tale of how technology isn’t always a full proof solution. Cars don’t fully drive themselves, at least not yet. But even when you leave driving solely in the driver’s hands, safety concerns arise.

Distracted driving remains one of the biggest safety concerns impacting student lives. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), distracted-driving crashes accounted for 8 percent of all fatal crashes, 14 percent of injury crashes and 13 percent of all police-reported motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2021.

Last month, Ryan Gray interviewed O’Dowd, who is also the CEO of Green Hills Software. He shared that he and his team at the Dawn Project have run tests of Teslas operating near school buses. O’Dowd said these tests show that a Tesla using FSD often failed to stop for and hit mannequins placed in the roadway to simulate the presence of children. Read more at stnonline.com/go/ia.

Autonomous driving technology for consumers will continue to evolve, and 2024 is expected to see significant advancements in this area. While fully autonomous vehicles are not yet available, we can anticipate more sophisticated advanced driver assistance systems becoming standard in new cars as well as school buses.

According to a 2022 report by Statista, the number of connected vehicles in the U.S. is expected to top 150 million by 2025, up from the current 84 million. Although many benefits come with driving a connected car (5G wireless connectivity to enable self-driving capabilities, advanced navigation systems, and fewer road accidents being a few of them), the increasing amount of software in vehicles has also led to heightened cybersecurity concerns.

Soon, we will begin to see Level 3 and Level 4 autonomous vehicles, where human intervention is minimal or not required in certain conditions. These systems claim to enhance safety and reduce accidents, but consider the tests performed by the Dawn Project. This appears to me that a major flaw may exist in the software. Also, keep in mind this is one carmaker, and many more are launching or have launched autonomous driving technology and features.

Also keep in mind that NHTSA has at least 41 open investigations into Tesla for its autopilot system, which is a precursor to the FSD mode and still requires human supervision. Tesla recalled over 2 million vehicles in the U.S. in December to install new safeguards in FSD mode, and Transport Canada said another 193,000 vehicles will be recalled there.

There are a lot of exciting trends on the horizon around technology. School transportation operators must remain updated on the trends in consumer and commercial vehicles that could impact safety and efficiency.

The integration of technology into vehicles goes beyond the engine and safety features. Connected vehicles are becoming the new norm, with advanced systems, vehicle-to-everything (V2X) communication and seamless connectivity.

School bus drivers share the road with many different types of vehicles and technology will continue to evolve. This industry must be prepared to change and adapt so it doesn’t become obsolete. Keep innovating your school transportation operations because the students and families we support count on us every school day.

Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the March 2024 issue of School Transportation News.

Related: (STN Podcast 198) Talk About It: School Bus vs. Tesla in Super Bowl Ad & Top-Level Superintendent Convos
Related: Super Bowl Ad Slams Tesla’s Full-Self Driving Mode Used Around School Buses
Related: New York Pushes Forward with Electric School Bus Mandate Despite Opposition
Related: National School Bus Inspection Training Adds Electric Bus, High-Voltage Safety Expertise

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