Kids & Autonomous Vehicles

Getting kids moved around is quite an effort. Schools manage large fleets of buses to get kids to school and back — and to activities like field trips and sporting events. Parents ferry kids of all ages to various after-school activities. At some point, no adult need be behind the wheel to make this happen.

It is interesting to think about the specific constraints and demands related to children, particularly young children. How young is too young to be in a vehicle with no adult present? A high-schooler taking an autonomous car sharing service to drama class wouldn’t raise eyebrows, but it’s hard to picture a toddler being shipped to daycare without an adult riding along.

Issues with Being Alone

One angle is to use a few questions relevant to the present day to gauge comfort levels and unwind the ‘why’ of it.

Am I comfortable with the child taking a school bus (with somewhat trusted adults present, but not necessarily familiar adults)?

It would be troubling to put a 2 year old on a bus, but by 5 years old, most parents are quite comfortable with their child taking a bus to kindergarten. This generally includes some reassuring features: the bus driver (and sometimes 2nd adult monitor) are vetted by the school via background checks and other mechanisms; and the bus is not public (no unknown adults).

Would I leave the child alone at home in a similar circumstance (length of time, time of day, etc.)?

This question helps us think about the limits of a child being left alone at all. A very small child would naturally be a bit scared being all alone in a car. My 8 year old would probably be emotionally OK in a car by himself (excited if allowed to play video games on the ride), and could be trusted to put on his seat belt, but not be equipped to handle exceptions such as an accident or vehicle breakdown.

Would I let the child ride in a person-operated ride sharing service (e.g. Lyft)?

In this scenario, the child is out on their own, and around adults that are not necessarily known or trusted. The adult would be there for accidents, etc. This is a similar comfort level to some urban school districts which use the city bus system instead of school buses for students to get around. (I am not sure of the specifics, but I imagine the youngest children take school buses.) Perhaps there is some additional vulnerability of being the only two people in a car vs. a more public space (bus or public sidewalks). There is also some analog to ‘unaccompanied minors’ traveling by airline, who get some for of additional monitoring and support.

Addressing the Gap

To address issues of safety and emotional comfort of parent and child, a few things would be required.

Communication: Children need a ready way to communicate with parents, and vice versa. A modern cell phone could accomplish this, but younger children might need more in terms of device usability, perhaps including vehicle integration or truly good voice response technology.

Surveillance: Parents would be more comfortable being able to directly monitor the child, including location, images, etc. This would add some emotional comfort, but also provide some safety benefit.

Trusted Monitors: A new job category of trusted adult monitors could accompany children on journeys. These people would be certified by some authority, with a level of training (CPR, etc.) and certification, and background checks. One example is an otherwise traditional but now autonomously driven school bus, where there is still an adult, an employee of the school system, there to monitor the children. However, this could also be part of a special premium offering like “Lyft Kids.”

Data & Policing: The role of police and public safety officers would have to take into account unaccompanied children. Vehicles carrying unaccompanied children would ideally make this information available (in a secure way) to authorities. This would be important for accidents — so that targeted help can be sent — but also for other lower-severity incidents. For example, an 11 year old might be alone in a car which is held up for 2 hours in a severe traffic situation, and may need a form of aid.

Regulatory Needs

Unaccompanied children in vehicles would be regulated similarly to seat belt and child safety seats. This would put some limits on what is acceptable in society.

Business Opportunities

  • The integrated communication and surveillance systems of autonomous cars could be product categories of their own, marketed by vehicle manufacturers and/or fleet owners.
  • Kid-friendly ride-sharing services could become premium offerings, allowing parents to ease the burden of ferrying kids around.
  • Vehicle designs will have to consider the safety considerations of not presuming that an able bodied adult is in the vehicle.