Driverless Vehicles for Kids?

As someone who is imminently expecting to deliver my first child, I often think about what driverless vehicles will mean for the transportation of children. I know that parents everywhere are dreaming of the day when they don’t have to “chauffeur” their kids from one activity to the next, but what does this really mean for transporting our youth? And is it really the panacea that parents are expecting?

Some of the concerns I’ve heard…and how they could be addressed:

  • Are these vehicles safe enough to transport kids? I have to believe that driverless vehicles will not be used for transporting children alone until their safety has truly been proven. As stated in this Wired article, school buses are often the last vehicles to adopt new technology – both for funding reasons and the long life-cycle of the vehicles.
  • What happens when the kids start fighting and require adult supervision? Of course the vehicle would be equipped with remote monitoring and communications, so, seemingly, an authority figure could observe any concerns (e.g., kids fighting) and discipline them via the intercom. If needed, the vehicle could be re-routed. Or, as this article suggests, laws could specify a minimum age or even require them to take a maturity test before allowing them to travel in a vehicle without adult supervision.
  • How can we be sure the kids are getting to and from their destinations safely? Interestingly, federal data suggests that “kids are most at risk when they’re boarding or alighting buses, not when they’re riding them” (per the Wired article). Driverless vehicles may provide more direct point-to-point service than the current school buses that rely upon a network of bus stops. And, someone will still need to be at home to receive the kids (driverless vehicles won’t be able to do EVERYTHING!).
  • How can we be sure kids are getting on the right vehicle and being routed to the appropriate destination? Facial recognition software is just one of the many technological advances that could combat this issue. Moreover, school districts and/or regulations may still require an adult presence on vehicles transporting kids; the benefit is that the adult’s skillset could be childcare-focused, as opposed to driving-focused.
  • Should we be concerned about privacy issues? Yes, we should be! And I would argue that we expose our kids to privacy issues when we give them SmartPhones, allow them to create Facebook profiles, and give them “Smart Toys.” I would expect appropriate regulations and protections to be in place by the time we’re at the point to send our kids in driverless vehicles by themselves.

Once parents learn to trust the driverless technology, I have to believe transporting kids via driverless vehicles will be an important market segment that both public agencies will continue to serve (via some version of school buses) and private companies will try to capitalize on. Clearly, I’m an optimist regarding how this will play out, but I know this is a controversial topic. What do people think?

About Lauren Isaac

Lauren Isaac is the Director of Business Initiatives for the North American operation of EasyMile. Easymile provides electric, driverless shuttles that are designed to cover short distances in multi-use environments. Prior to working at EasyMile, Lauren worked at WSP where she was involved in various projects involving advanced technologies that can improve mobility in cities. Lauren wrote a guide titled “Driving Towards Driverless: A Guide for Government Agencies” regarding how local and regional governments should respond to autonomous vehicles in the short, medium, and long term. In addition, Lauren maintains the blog, “Driving Towards Driverless”, and has presented on this topic at more than 75 industry conferences. She recently did a TEDx Talk, and has been published in Forbes and the Chicago Tribune among other publications.
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