October 09, 2018

A new era: Self-driving shuttle ushers students to school at Babcock Ranch

By: Vicki Parsons - IT

Thyrie Bland, Fort Myers News-Press
Published 3:01 p.m. ET Oct. 5, 2018

The future is here: Driverless shuttle transports students to school at Babcock Ranch Andrew West, News-Press


The wheels on the shuttle go round and round even when nobody is driving it.

A self-driving, electric shuttle takes students to school once a week at Babcock Ranch, the solar-powered community north of Fort Myers straddling the Lee-Charlotte County line.

“I think it’s cool that somebody invented that,” said Molly Murphy, 7, a second-grader.

The yellow shuttle with drawings on its side picks up students each Friday around 7:30 a.m. and takes them to Babcock Neighborhood School. An attendant is on board as the shuttle slowly makes its way to the school. The ride is only a few minutes.

At 2:45 p.m., the shuttle picks up students at the school and returns them to a shuttle stop.

“I feel like I am ushering people into a new era,” said Jason Perez, the shuttle service’s chief operator.

The shuttle is part of a lofty plan for autonomous vehicles at Babcock. Its plan is to introduce a service that will allow its residents to call for driver-less vehicles through an app, said Natalee Burns, a project coordinator for Kitson & Partners.

“What we always say is the ultimate goal is that you will live here and you won’t need to own your own personal vehicle — that we will have a transportation system that is so compelling that’s all you will need to get around onsite or offsite,” Burns said.

Transdev operates the shuttles at Babcock. EasyMile manufactured them.

Self-driving vehicles are being tested in several cities across the country. When a pedestrian died after being hit by one in March in Arizona, some questioned if they are safe.

The school shuttle has sensors on it that can detect obstacles, and the vehicle can come to a stop on its own, Perez said.

“Basically the response, I think, it’s 30 times quicker than a human being,” he said.

Perez carries what looks like an oversize yellow remote control using a shoulder strap. He can use the remote to take control of the shuttle if needed. The unit has two joysticks — one that takes the shuttle left or right and another that moves it forward and reverse.

“Like my mom says, ‘The video games paid off,'” he said.

Perez said he thinks driver-less vehicles are going to be common in the future.

“I just think about the lives that we could save in the future,” he said. “We are not worried if the person driving is drunk or under the influence of any kind.”

Autonomous shuttles began operating at Babcock in January. Visitors can take a tour of Babcock on a shuttle while an attendant points out the community’s features.

The school shuttle started operating three weeks ago. Parents and their children went on a trial run on the vehicle before it started taking students to school.

“It was very slow, but it was very neat,” Babcock resident Kacia Murphy, 40, said. “You felt very safe.”

Murphy’s children — Molly, Brody, 9, and Cole, 12, — rode the bus Friday morning. The children walk to school or ride their bicycles on the days the shuttle does not run.

The shuttle looks much different than a traditional school bus.

Its doors slide open rather than swing open.

The shuttle doesn’t have a stop arm, but it does have a bell that rings.

It is much smaller than a bus. There are six seats on the shuttle and standing room.

Five students rode on the shuttle Friday.

“It’s going to change people’s lives,” said Brody, a Babcock school fourth-grader.—