NHTSA Cracks Down on Self-Driving School Bus

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s crackdown on a self-driving school bus pilot in Florida was a rare move by an agency that has mostly taken a hands-off approach to testing and development of autonomous vehicles.

The NHTSA has ordered Transdev, a global public transit company, to halt a pilot deployment of autonomous school buses in Babcock Ranch, Fla. The pilot, launched last month, violated the company’s temporary importation permit for the EZ10 Generation II driverless shuttle, the agency said in a statement on October. 19. The order came in a letter to Transdev, as first reported by the car blog Jalopnik.

School buses need to comply with stringent Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) because they are intended for children, a vulnerable population, according to the NHTSA.

“Using a non-compliant test vehicle to transport children is irresponsible, inappropriate, and in direct violation of the terms of Transdev’s approved test project,” NHTSA Deputy Administrator Heidi King noted in the statement. NHTSA threatened the company with a possible civil penalty, the voiding of its temporary importation permit or exportation of the vehicle.

“Transdev has informed NHTSA that it will stop unapproved operations,” the statement said.

Transdev told TU Automotive it has not received the NHTSA’s letter but ended the planned six-week trial early out of deference to the agency. The pilot had operated safely, without any issues, Transdev spokesperson Mitun Seguin wrote in an email.

The shuttle carried the same five students to and from school over a three-block route on private roads in the Babcock Ranch Community, and only on Fridays, Seguin wrote. Families gave specific approval for their children to ride the shuttle.

“Transdev does not – nor would ever – sacrifice safety for progress and is fully committed to compliance with all relevant regulations,” Seguin added.

The safety agency, and the larger Department of Transportation, have taken a mostly voluntary approach to ensuring autonomous vehicle safety. King said in July that there wasn’t yet a need to regulate self-driving vehicles. DOT’s latest AV policy paper, “Autonomous Vehicles 3.0,” released earlier this month, emphasized self-certification and proposed steps to make it easier to get AVs on the road. However, DOT will remain vigilant and act when safety defects are found, King said at the launch of that report.

The crackdown on Transdev’s school shuttle was in keeping with the latest policy paper, NHTSA said.

The agency hasn’t alleged that the shuttle has any specific safety defects, only that Transdev never asked for nor was granted permission to use it for transporting schoolchildren.

Transdev publicly announced the school pilot on August 31, noting that it would launch in September. The company said the 12-person shuttle would be limited to a top speed of 8mph and would always have a safety attendant on board. It would pick up students at designated stops, with a plan to later make it available for home pickups on demand through an app.

NHTSA’s action appears to be a special case rather than a signal that the agency has changed direction, AV experts said.

“I haven’t seen any indication that NHTSA is generally interested in more strictly regulating AV efforts at this point,” Navigant Research analyst Sam Abuelsamid told TU Automotive via email.

FMVSS, the standards used for federal approval of vehicles, are controversial when it comes to AVs. Some of the rules require equipment that’s only needed if there is a human driver, and manufacturers have complained those standards slow down driverless car development. Others cover occupant safety and special cases such as school buses.

“To the degree that the AV 3.0 guidelines address regulations, it’s mostly with an eye toward eliminating FMVSS requirements that aren’t relevant to AVs, such as the requirements for steering wheels, pedals and mirrors,” Abuelsamid said. This case has more to do with passenger safety and school buses, he said.

Editor’s NoteThis article was updated to include a statement from Transdev.

Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.


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