By 2025, Swarms of Self-Driving Vehicles Will Transport Students to Learning Sites

The modern American conception of school–big centralized facilities with start times that seem way too early or way too late–is driven by yellow buses. Districts need to get three or four cycles out of each bus each morning and evening to get utilization rates high enough to keep transportation affordable. The transportation tail is wagging the dog.

But transportation is changing fast. Recent breakthroughs in computing and maturation of autonomous driving systems are rapidly making self-driving vehicles a reality. “By 2022, 2023, the majority of transportation in urban cities with temperate weather will be on demand, shared and likely autonomous,” says Aarjav Trivedi, chief executive of Ridecell, a San Francisco company that provides the backend software for car sharing.

Waymo, the self-driving tech unit of Alphabet, has begun public trials of self-driving minivans in Phoenix. The goal is a better understanding how to make such a service appealing enough to take the place of a family car. (Photo courtesy of WSJ)

Considering the trends in autonomous vehicles, we can begin to imagine the rather dramatic ways that will impact education. Here’s a plausible scenario of how urban pupil transportation will work in forward leaning districts in 2025:

The yellow buses have been sold off. The district contracts with the regional transportation districts for self-driving buses and vans (6-12 passenger) and with transport companies for pool cars (think Uber Pool with a background check hauling 3-6 passengers).

The self-driving buses and vans have dedicated student routes in the morning and afternoon. Students receive a bus pass that also has access to standard routes on off hours. The self-driving vans will be available for other scheduled and on-demand civic uses during the day and evening.

For dedicated pupil transport, the vans and buses will have a monitor (usually a high school student or parent) riding along, trained to keep the peace and deal with emergency situations–student, transport or otherwise. (You can remind the troublemakers that with facial recognition you can run, but you can’t hide).

The self-driving vans and busses will be augmented by certified pool drivers. It will be a while (perhaps 2030) before these are replaced by self-driving cars–it’s currently hard to imagine parents kissing little Johnny and Susie and packing them in a driverless car. Perhaps with enhanced monitoring and rapid response emergency services, the shift will begin.

Let’s call this new approach “swarm transport” to recognize the coordinated array of vehicles that will soon spend a portion of their day contributing to pupil transport.

How Swarm Transport Will Change School

There are nine implications of affordable, convenient and safe student transportation:

  1. Schedules. Swarm transport will enable multiple start times and dynamic schedules for secondary students. It will be much easier to start high school classes later when districts don’t need to obsess about a fourth bus cycle.
  2. Access. Students will be able to access work, community and service learning opportunities any time during the day.
  3. Choice. Families will have transported access to more school options rather than just a neighborhood school or a few schools in a local zone. (CRPE said current public transportation doesn’t do enough to improve equity, but the swarm could help.)
  4. College and career. Upper division students will be better able to access dual enrollment and career and technical education opportunities on college campuses.
  5. Space. Add blended and online learning to staggered schedules and off-campus learning opportunities and swarm transport could reduce the need for high school space by something like one-third.
  6. Safety. There will be far fewer student drivers on the road, resulting in a dramatic reduction in accidents and deaths.
  7. Travel. When transportation is convenient, affordable and safe, there will be more field trips and more travel-based learning experiences (e.g., outdoor education and camps)
  8. Microschools. There will be even less justification for building giant schools. There are already diseconomies of scale (except 5A football competitiveness) for big schools (i.e., a lot more non-teaching roles). A distributed swarm transportation system will enable networks of microschools.
  9. Learning Time. Many students spend an hour or more on a bus each day. Swarm transportation inevitably will cut down on travel time and fewer student drivers, allowing for an increase in learning time.

Signs Of Progress

China launched a self-driving bus in 2015 (that’s a chaperone signaling a touchdown in the driver’s seat).

The EZ10 is a driverless electric shuttle from Easymile, a startup launched in 2014 in Toulouse, France.

Another French company, Navya, tested a self-driving van in Las Vegas in January and will begin production in Michigan this fall. The 15 passenger vans will shuttle students on the University of Michigan campus this coming school year.

Columbus, Ohio won a $40 million Smart City Challenge grant from DOT in 2016. Its proposed improvements include ride-sharing programs and a single app that pulls together real-time data for pedestrians, drivers and people traveling by bus or cab. It will also deploy three self-driving shuttles.

Students in Toronto already ride public transit in masses, increasing from 11 to 22 million in the past three years. The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) is actively researching self-driving vehicles and “the TTC would be happy to become a leader” in their use.

In April, the mayor of Portland, Oregon, invited companies developing autonomous vehicles into the city, with the aim of using shared fleets of vehicles to reduce congestion and pollution.

The big switch isn’t going to happen fast, so if your buses are falling apart it makes sense to replace some of them–but it wouldn’t make sense to buy a whole fleet right now, just when things are about to get interesting.

The inevitability of swarm transport is relevant to any facilities committee beginning to consider a big bond for big schools. If you’re thinking about building a big new high school, pause and think hard about where the world is headed–both the kinds of learning experiences young people need and how they’ll access those experiences.

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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