The Trump administration has taken a hands-off approach to regulating self-driving cars, but on Friday federal regulators decided that one self-driving car project had gone too far. In a sharply-worded statement, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it has ordered the French transportation company Transdev to stop transporting schoolchildren in a self-driving vehicle in Florida.
Transdev’s pilot project in Babcock Ranch, a planned community, was quite modest. On Fridays, Transdev’s electric shuttle would take a group of elementary-aged children to school, then take them home later in the day. The vehicle had a safety driver on board. The route was short enough that kids walked or rode their bikes to school the other four days of the week, according to a spokeswoman for Babcock Ranch.
“The shuttle travels at a top speed of 8mph, with the potential to reach speeds of 30mph once the necessary infrastructure is complete,” an August press release stated.
The Babcock Ranch project is just one of many self-driving pilot projects being testing across the United States. Many of these projects involve cars moving at higher speeds—and in more challenging traffic conditions—than the Babcock Ranch school shuttle.
So why did the feds shut down this project while allowing lots of others to continue with minimal oversight? NHTSA points to two factors. One is that Transdev is a French company. Different countries have different safety standards, so vehicles designed overseas often can’t be used in the US without special permission from US regulators. NHTSA granted Transdev a temporary importation authorization to test its driverless shuttle in the United States. “Transdev requested permission to use the shuttle for a specific demonstration project, not as a school bus,” NHTSA said in its Friday statement. “Transdev failed to disclose or receive approval for this use.”
The other issue, of course, is that the project involves kids. For obvious reasons, federal regulators are going to be extra wary of testing experimental technology on schoolchildren.
“School buses are subject to rigorous Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards that take into account their unique purpose of transporting children, a vulnerable population,” NHTSA writes.
The pilot project ran for several weeks before the Trump administration shut it down. It launched in mid-September, and the Fort Myers News-Press followed the kids as they rode the shuttle in early October.
“I think it’s cool that somebody invented that,” seven-year-old Molly Murphy told the paper. But federal regulators argue that the company didn’t get proper authorization to test it—and in their view that’s not so cool.