How Soon Will Self-Driving Cars Take Kids to School?

Waymo’s self-driving cars are now driving through the Phoenix metro area without anyone in the front seat.

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Waymo recently announced that it will launch a fleet of self-driving taxis within the next 18 months. I can personally attest that I’ve seen self-driving cars from Waymo, Intel, Uber and others passing my house with great regularity over the last two years (thanks, in large part, to Arizona’s solidly pro-innovation governor, Doug Ducey).

Self-driving cars are going to dramatically change society. The question is no longer “if” but “when.” Some changes will be obvious: fewer accidents, fewer deaths, faster travel, more productive use of commute time, etc. Some second order effects are less obvious but highly likely. For example, once it becomes cheaper to order a Waymo or Uber whenever needed than to own a vehicle, people will be able to convert garages into usable living space and businesses will be able to get rid of parking garages and most parking lots.

Self-driving cars will also change how we get our kids to school. As I wrote a few years ago, self-driving cars will eventually make it safe and efficient to send multiple children to multiple different schools — and with cars able to travel faster, the number of schools within a commutable distance will dramatically increase. That would greatly expand the educational options available to families.

How soon should we expect this change? That’s not clear. As Robert Pondiscio has noted, the technology is changing faster than the culture. It might be a while before families feel comfortable putting their child in a vehicle with no adult supervision. On the other hand, advances in GPS, video monitoring, and even bracelets that detect medical episodes can make future rides in self-driving vehicles safer than anything we grew up with.

In the spirit of the Forster-Mathews bet, Robert and I are putting our money where our mouths are. Although I expect that in five years, few people will be sending their kids to school in autonomous vehicles, I predict that at least 25 percent of children in the Phoenix area will get to school via a self-driving car by the 2022-23 school year. This may sound overly exuberant, but with self-driving cars already on the Phoenix streets and Waymo launching its taxi service, I expect high demand for the safety that self-driving cars offer. Moreover, the autonomous vehicle companies are already branching out into services like trucking — it won’t be long before they’re operating school buses as well. Unlike bus drivers, self-driving cars don’t get drunk, lose their temper, get distracted, fall asleep, or not show up for work. As soon as it is safer and more cost-effective for school districts to switch to self-driving vehicles, I expect the shift to be rapid.

The loser owes the winner a beer. And if I’m right, we’re taking a self-driving car to the bar.

17 Responses to How Soon Will Self-Driving Cars Take Kids to School?

  1. Mike Norton says:

    Good prediction, Jason. 9-12 passenger vehicles are cheap and limit the probability of an abusive kid going wild without supervision. Make these vehicles electric and their life cycle doubles while their operating cost shrinks. Public Schools just found another 4% increase in their classroom budget.

    Footnote – lease those same vehicles in to ride share services non-school hours and you just made the public school transit fleet a profit center.

  2. rpondiscio says:

    Talk to anyone who runs a school as opposed (sorry Brother Bedrick) to just writing about ’em. The worst behavior problems start on the bus to and from school. Video monitoring and GPS won’t prevent bullying or even discern it. A society that gets the vapors and calls the cops when a kid walks home alone from the grocery store is not going to put its kids into a moving vehicle with no adult supervision and no *immediate* protection from threats real and (mostly) imagined. Technology is no match for over-protective parenting.

    The beer you buy me in five years will be far more likely to be delivered to the bar in a driverless truck than our kids to school. Not happening.

    • Jason Bedrick says:

      As I noted on your FB page, I’m counting on the over-protection factor to eventually work in favor of self-driving cars.

      Again: self-driving cars don’t get drunk, tired, or distracted. After a few years of getting comfortable with them on the roads and recognizing that they’re safer than a human-operated vehicle, many parents will prefer it to human-operated vehicles.

      I think there are a few ways to cut down on the bullying. First, there will probably be more vehicles with fewer routes and fewer kids. Parents will then likely have more control over whom their kids ride with. Second, the video monitoring will mean that parents and school officials will have a record of any bullying — knowing that, the kids will probably behave better. And, per the first point, it will be easier to separate kids who don’t get along and isolate problem children.

      I’m sure there will be some awful anecdotes. There always are. But the moment it becomes perceived as safer and more cost-effective to do this, I expect the shift to be rapid.

    • I’m with Robert on this one. When I was a kid the magazine Boy’s Life promised that everyone would have a heliport at their house and fly to work and school in a helicopter. This seemed realistic to me given that helicopters already existed at that time and no new technology had to be invented. I’m still waiting for my heliport.

      • Jason Bedrick says:

        Granted. But you might feel differently if you saw self-driving cars going past your house several times a day.

      • Mike Norton says:

        I need to be fair with all of you. I’ve been engaged in the autonomous vehicle development process since the ’90’s when Dept of Defense technology was first used to operate farm machinery and mining equipment remotely without drivers.

        I’ve remained linked to that field since as explosives and weapons transport vehicles have convoyed globally synced through webmesh systems.

        It is actually a step down from the currently leading technologies to operate shuttle vans without drivers. All versions of labor intensive transport and equipment operations will be robotized as fast as regulators can keep up. Regulators are now the limit on development. Not technology or cost.

  3. matthewladner says:

    I like Bedrick’s chances to be right, if not necessarily on this timeline, because of this:

    • Jason Bedrick says:

      Yes, that’s what I had in mind. Half of Phoenix-area families already send their kids to a learning environment besides their assigned school, and that number will only grow.

      If there’s a fleet of self-driving cars in Phoenix by mid-2019, how long do we expect it will take before most people switch over to the self-driving system? My guess is another three to four years. If half of the ed choice families are using self-driving cars, then I will have hit my 25% figure — and again, I expect it to be more than half exercising choice and I also expect a few school districts to shift over to self-driving buses.

      For the rest of the country, it’ll probably be at least a decade.

      Just think about how long it took for no one to have a smartphone until nearly everyone had a smartphone. It’s been a decade since the iPhone was introduced and now 95% of Americans have cellphones and 77% of those are smartphones. In 2011, it was only 35%.

  4. Michael J. Norton says:

    Opt-In and Opt-Out rights for parents will eliminate the problem kid on the bus. Selecting your own pool of co-riders is an option with smaller autonomous vehicles.

    What many of you are missing is that the service won’t be owned by the school. It will be contracted service that has flexible users well beyond school functions. The fleet can run all weekend and all through the day and night.

    We will not own cars by 2030 except as a weird hobby for the eccentric. Public transit demands will lead the way.

    • Jason Bedrick says:

      Even now, bus fleets are regularly owned by third parties and contracted. One Q is whether the schools will contract with those third parties or whether parents will contract directly.

      For now, I expect that districts will do the contracting in the public sector and parents will do so in the private sector, but that could change in either direction in the long run. I expect some sort of convergence, but I don’t know which way. If I had to guess, Having schools do it would probably bring the price down, and private schools that offer that service would have a competitive advantage, so I think that’s probably what will happen. But who knows?

      • Jason Bedrick says:

        One great part is this: parents will be able to use the service on THEIR schedule.

        Right now, the bus goes on its own schedule. Miss the buss? Too bad. Gotta drive the kid to school or pick her up from school. With self-driving cars, that won’t happen.

        Need to stay late for sports or band practice? Arrive early for tutoring? Arrive late after a doctor’s appointment? No problem. You get two trips per day, on your schedule.

        THAT is going to really appeal to parents, many of whom are currently glorified chauffeurs for all their kids’ activities.

    • rpondiscio says:

      <<< We will not own cars by 2030 except as a weird hobby for the eccentric.

      Oh, man. I bet the wrong dude.

  5. Jason Bedrick says:

    One more factor: parents will be able to ride with their kids on the way to work. Sure, it’ll be a more circuitous route to work, but if you’re not driving then you can have breakfast together in the car (or just some nice QT) and then answer emails after dropping the kids off at school on the way to work.

    That won’t be as helpful with three kids going to three different schools, but I expect it will become common practice in many families.

  6. Greg Forster says:

    Are school bus drivers public employees in Phoenix? That’s the really critical question here.

  7. Jason Bedrick says:

    Greg, so far as I can tell, they are government employees. However, they don’t appear to be unionized. (I could be wrong about that — there doesn’t appear to be a bus drivers’ union but perhaps they join the SEIU or NEA or something.)

    In any case, if the districts stand to save a lot of money, there will be significant pressure to phase out the drivers. Especially with news stories like this:

    • Greg Forster says:

      School employees are often de facto unionized without being de jure unionized. Legal arrangements are made (eg in labor agreements) to protect them.

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