The big yellow school bus, with its plastic seats, rubbery smell, and cool-kids-in-the-back social hierarchies, hasn’t gotten a true update in decades. What will happen to such an old-fashioned vehicle when our streets become flooded with driverless cars? We know how service vehicles like delivery vans and city buses will be affected by autonomous tech. What about school buses, which are so vital and also so fraught with concerns over safety?
That’s the question the Seattle-based design firm Teague recently set out to answer. Hannah is the firm’s conceptual design for an autonomous school bus–an internal project that presents a radically different vision for how kids might get to school. Say goodbye to the bus stop; each six-passenger vehicle picks up and drops off every child at their front door, ensuring their identity with facial recognition. The vehicle’s AI changes its route based on traffic or other roadblocks, even rejiggering the order in which it drops kids off if, for instance, their parent is running late. And during the rest of the day, each Hannah vehicle can be used to deliver packages, food, or donations, earning school districts extra cash.
But questions remain. Will parents ever trust an autonomous vehicle enough to allow their children to ride in one with no human supervision? And will autonomous technology ever be advanced enough to supervise children, much less cheap enough for school districts to afford? Hannah is a kind of thought experiment: If autonomy is coming to every street, what does getting to school look like?
According to Devin Liddell, the design lead on the project who heads up brand strategy at Teague, there are a few key issues that drove their thinking on trust and AVs. First is the fact that most parents want their child to be supervised by an adult on the way to and from school. “We’re conditioned by the myth of supervision on board current school buses,” Liddell says. “Is it really possible for a driver operating a five-ton vehicle who’s facing forward to also supervise 50-plus kids?” Liddell argues that it isn’t, and that Hannah’s AI system would actually do a much better job of making sure kids are in the right place at the right time, identifying each child using facial recognition.
But what about the bullying that seems to inevitably take place on school buses? How could an AI prevent that without an adult present? Liddell and his team spoke with a bullying expert to learn more about how bullying and social hierarchies happen on the bus. A big factor? The sheer number of kids. So Liddell decided that Hannah should be significantly smaller–only six seats, all of which face each other. The design was influenced by campfires and dinner tables, and it ensures there’s no one sitting behind anyone else–likely reduced hair pulling and teasing as a result.
However, the sociologist Liddell spoke with was skeptical about the concept of a driverless school bus. Reducing the number of seats might deter bullying, but it wouldn’t eliminate it. Also, how would a driverless bus handle something even more serious, like a sexual assault?
Inclusive design was another concern. Conventional buses today, while often accessible for the disabled, typically call attention to the fact that a person in a wheelchair is getting on, as the entire vehicle shifts to bring them aboard. School buses can be even worse–in their research, the team found that disabled kids are sometimes picked up in entirely different vehicles altogether, adding an element of segregation to the trip to school. “We wanted to have kids enter the vehicle the same way regardless of their physical capabilities,” Liddell says. Their solution? Hannah’s floor is flush with the curb, and all kids enter the vehicle through a ramp.
Once they landed on the six-seat design, Liddell and his team realized that there were other benefits to it as well. Smaller vehicles eliminate the need for what’s called a “hub and spoke” system, where vehicles move along fixed routes. Instead, the vehicles could actually pick up all six children at their front door. When you replace giant vehicles that can transport 50 or more kids with smaller, more flexible cars, the entire fleet gets more efficient. Liddell says that the team’s research showed that, thanks to the nature of school bus networks, buses are rarely full; at times a single child will occupy an entire bus. Hannah would deploy vehicles more flexibly in a way that could help kids get home safer and faster at a lower cost to the school system.
Like its name, Hannah is entirely palindromic. That means that either end of the vehicle can act like the front: It can drop one child off on one side of the street, then cut across to the other side of the street without reversing direction and drop off another child on that side. The idea would only work in an all-autonomous street environment, where it could coordinate with incoming traffic–and it’s never been tested. But because Hannah would never need to turn around, Liddell believes it would save time while ensuring that kids never have to cross the street. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nearly two-thirds of fatal injuries caused by school transportation from 2006 to 2015 occurred when school buses struck young pedestrians. By ensuring that kids are always picked up right in front of their door, Hannah would help keep them safer.
Besides being theoretically safer for kids, Teague thinks Hannah could also save schools money. Big school buses tend to cost between $85,000 and $120,000 each today; purchasing enough smaller buses that require drivers would cost at least as much, if not more. Since this autonomous future is still distant and Hannah’s cost is still theoretical, it’s tough to say whether Hannah would be cheaper than the status quo.
But Liddell estimates that the concept would save money for schools in the future, thanks to another element of Teague’s concept: that once Hannah cars are done dropping kids off at school, they don’t need to go back to a giant parking lot like today’s school buses do, where they sit for hours until they’re needed to do the afternoon rounds. Instead, they continue to drive. An obvious task might be to act as a ride-sharing vehicle for adults, but Liddell decided to stay away from allowing any passengers other than kids into the Hannah cars. “We don’t have as much control over non-student passengers,” he says. “We didn’t want that polluting the sacredness of the school bus itself. Are we okay with vehicles where adults may not be making the best choices inside those vehicles?”
Instead, Hannah’s interior can be transformed in just a few minutes using a standardized “insert.” That could be something like a roving Amazon locker, where people could pick up their packages. It could be a place to put food deliveries for a service like Uber Eats. It could even act as a Meals on Wheels donation drop off or distribution point for nonprofits. Rather than sitting in a parking lot which the school district has to pay for, the vehicle could continue to work in the neighborhood, potentially bringing in extra money for the school.
Still, don’t look for Hannah on the street anytime soon. Liddell thinks that because schools tend to move slower than other institutions, we might see something like Hannah on the roads about five years after mainstream adoption of self-driving cars (which one study from the research firm Gardner optimistically suggests could occur in as little as four or five years from now). That’s a huge maybe.
Not only do school districts move slowly, but navigating federal and municipal regulations is a serious hurdle. As for who would be underwriting the research and development for a concept as ambitious as this, Liddell has an idea for that too. He envisions a company like Amazon, Lyft, or even a FedEx or UPS offering a service like this to local governments–perhaps in exchange for a tax break of some kind.
“The more we explored the downtime use of the vehicles, the more it became apparent that someone like Amazon could actually deploy the next generation of future delivery vehicles and take on pupil transportation as a side gig,” Liddell says. “Pupil transportation is nothing if not an extraordinary logistics challenge.”
Hannah is obviously just a concept, and while some of its features are possible today, it’s still a long way away from reality. Ultimately, it’s more of a thought experiment that investigates how autonomous vehicles will function in society. It raises the question: When autonomous vehicles are more widespread, will we trust them at all? “The whole notion of will you put your kids on board an autonomous vehicle ends up being a proxy for the question around autonomous vehicles in general,” Liddell says. “We’ll know we’ve finally arrived at a moment of trusting autonomous vehicles when we’re okay putting our kids on them.”