This story was originally published in Builder.

Kids at Babcock Ranch are trying out an autonomous school bus.
Kids at Babcock Ranch are trying out an autonomous school bus.

Babcock Ranch, located north of Ft. Meyers, Fl., continues to establish itself as the country’s first solar city and an early adopter of all things tech. The town is now operating driverless vehicles in a pilot program which includes taking kids to school in a self-driving, miniature bus. The transportation system in the sustainable new town developed by Kitson & Partners is focused on decreasing dependency on personal vehicles by offering residents a broad range of more environmentally friendly mobility alternatives.

Babcock Neighborhood School (BNS) students living within the community will be the first in the nation to catch a ride to school on an autonomous shuttle. Nearly 30 of the 316 students enrolled in grades K-7 at BNS this year will be residing within the community by January.

The experimental bus is currently operating on Fridays only. The kids love it, and even the parents are on board with the idea, which came as a small surprise to the vehicle’s manufacturer. “We figured there would be some minor concerns. But having the shuttle in the community running safe, successful demonstration service for months, we think, helped parents and families get comfortable with the technology,” says Scott Hagen, a spokesman for Transdev North America, based in Silver Spring, Md. A human attendant currently accompanies the shuttle – just in case.

An autonomous school bus on its route at Babcock Ranch
An autonomous school bus on its route at Babcock Ranch

The autonomous vehicle (AV) system is intended to reduce or even eliminate the need for residents to use a car to get around the community. “It’s going to transform the way we think about the design of communities of the future,” says Syd Kitson, CEO of Kitson & Partners. “When you think about how we’re one day going to be able to eliminate parking garages, parking areas, and garages in the homes, you need to think through how all of that works together. At Babcock we’re starting the process.”

At buildout, Babcock Ranch will include 19,500 homes and 6 million square feet of commercial space. The AV program began with weekend tour rides around the property but the service has expanded to limited on-demand service and a new route convenient for students. The school shuttles, which are painted yellow to resemble a traditional school bus pick up and drop off BNS student residents who have been approved by BNS to walk or bike to school at a shuttle stop within the Trail’s Edge neighborhood not far from the school.

The electric-powered shuttles run on batteries and the typical cruising speed is 12 mph with a top speed of 30 mph. It takes about five hours to charge the vehicle and it will run for 12 hours on a charge.

At this point the rides are free and available to residents and non-residents alike but that could change, says Hagen. “Eventually we will work with Babcock Ranch to determine if the mobility services will be funded through a subscription—where residents will pay a small fare for using the shuttle on an as needed basis—or a small monthly fee as part of the homeowner’s association,” he says.

As the vehicle and the human riders work through the pilot program, developers imagine a day when operating speeds can be increased and an attendant won’t be needed. Additional infrastructure including interconnected traffic signals and electronic checkpoints to monitor the vehicle’s location are also being installed and tested. Babcock Ranch provides an excellent testing ground for the new gear, Kitson says.

“Because it’s new infrastructure we’re able to build the roads and the markers along the way that these vehicles can read,” he says. “It’s not expensive, it’s not a radical change to the infrastructure and you don’t have the legacy issues that so many of these other communities have – we’re starting with a blank sheet of paper.”

By the first of next year Transdev and Babcock are shooting to have point-to-point autonomous rides set up. “People will be able to call one of our vehicles using their iPhone, similar to an Uber, and the autonomous vehicle will come directly to your house and take you to where you want to go,” says Kitson. “We look forward to that and implementing it to find out how people react and what we can do to improve it.”

This story was originally published in Builder.