An autonomous shuttle serving schoolchildren in Babcock Ranch, Florida for the past month must cease service, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has informed vehicle manufacturer Transdev.
NHTSA sent a letter dated Oct. 17 to Transdev ordering the international mobility manufacturer to immediately stop using its EZ10 Generation II driverless shuttle to transport children to and from school. The vehicle had been in operation for the past five weeks and has transported up to five students at a time on Fridays. Students walked or biked to school the rest of the week.
A spokeswoman for the developer of Babcock Ranch, a 17,000-acre planned and sustainable community that borders nature preserves near Fort Myers, told School Transportation News earlier this month that the shuttle is not affiliated with the local school and is open for anyone to ride. But photos show the word “school” affixed to the front of the yellow shuttle that also has black parallel lines similar to rub rails painted horizontally across its sides.
Transdev said in a statement on Monday that the automated school shuttle was intended as a six-week pilot program to supplement an existing weekend shuttle for community residents.
“It’s a great testing ground for rolling this out in a safe way and figuring out what are the real-life uses of this,” added Lisa Hall, speaking for Kitson & Partners, owned by former Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys pro football player Syd Kitson.
NHTSA disagreed. In March, NHTSA granted Transdev the ability to temporarily import its driverless shuttle for testing and demonstration purposes. NHTSA called Transdev’s use of the driverless shuttle to transport school children unlawful—and in violation of its authorization.
NHTSA said Transdev did not disclose or receive approval for school use, and pointed out that school buses are subjected to “rigorous” Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.
The agency added that its action aligns with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s guidance related to automated vehicles that was outlined this month in Automated Vehicles 3.0: Preparing for the Future of Transportation.
“Innovation must not come at the risk of public safety,” said NHTSA Deputy Administrator Heidi King. “Using a noncompliant test vehicle to transport children is irresponsible, inappropriate, and in direct violation of the terms of Transdev’s approved test project.”
Transdev said it voluntarily ceased operation of the automated vehicle, but added that the shuttle was “operating safely, without any issues, in a controlled environment.”
“Transdev believed it was within the requirements of the testing and demonstration project previously approved by NHTSA for ridership by adults and children using the same route,” the statement added. “We designed this pilot to further enhance our learning about what types of services would be most appreciated by residents, so that as the Babcock community grows, we can deliver a robust suite of mobility options.”
Hall previously told STN that the shuttle ran through the neighborhood at about 8 mph and was operated by a background-checked Transdev employee, similar to an elevator operator. Kacia Murphy shared with STN that her children had a positive experience riding the shuttle on Fridays. The other days of the week they walked or biked to school.
However, NHTSA said that had Transdev disclosed that it intended to use the shuttle for school transportation, the agency “would have considered a variety of additional factors in its evaluation, including whether the vehicle complied with applicable school bus and bus regulations and whether additional conditions were necessary to ensure the safety of children.”
Meanwhile, Babcock Ranch continues to boom. Hall said over 60 families had moved into the sustainable, self-contained town that is run on solar power via Florida Power & Light Company, with about 250 more families expected to arrive by the end of the year.
Hall added that Babcock Ranch operates under an agreement with the state, that it will need no additional fossil fuel to exist. She said the goal is for residents to eventually have no need to own vehicles, because they and their children will eventually rely on walking, biking, point-to-point shuttle service, or renting vehicles to drive off property.
Read Transdev’s full statement:
“The autonomous school shuttle operation at Babcock Ranch was intended as a six-week pilot program to complement the existing weekend AV service provided to community residents. NHTSA and Transdev discussed the operation last week, and while we have not yet received the letter NHTSA has referred to directing us to stop the operation, Transdev voluntarily elected to stop the pilot one week earlier out of deference to NHTSA.
This small pilot was operating safely, without any issues, in a highly-controlled environment. Transdev believed it was within the requirements of the testing and demonstration project previously approved by NHTSA for ridership by adults and children using the same route.
Following are pertinent facts about the school shuttle pilot:
- The school shuttle at Babcock Ranch operated one day a week, on Fridays only, for 5 weeks.
- A maximum of only 5 students, the same students, rode the shuttle in the morning and afternoon for the three-block long trip during the course of the five days of the pilot.
- A person acting as a safety monitor was always on board and a maximum speed of 8 mph helped ensure the comfort and safety of every student who chose to ride the shuttle during the pilot program.
- The shuttle was operated entirely on private roads within the Babcock Ranch Community, which will have some 250 homes constructed by year-end.
- Families provided specific approval for their children to ride the school shuttle; again it was the same shuttle that parents and children have been using on weekends as part of the Babcock Ranch experience since November 2017.
- We designed this pilot to further enhance our learning about what types of services would be most appreciated by residents, so that as the Babcock community grows, we can deliver a robust suite of mobility options.
Transdev does not — nor would ever — sacrifice safety for progress and is fully committed to compliance with all relevant regulations. We have already transported over 2 million passengers on Transdev shared autonomous transport services around the world. We operate with the highest standard of safety and security for our passengers and employees in all vehicle and service types, autonomous or otherwise.”