How Self-Driving Cars Will Enable Greater School Choice

Transportation is one of the most significant roadblocks to exercising educational choice, especially for low-income families. But a new technology promises to greatly expand the number of schools that are logistically feasible for students to attend.

Transportation is one of the most significant roadblocks to exercising educational choice, especially for low-income families.

A 2009 study by the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) found that one quarter of all families and one third of low-income families in Denver and Washington D.C. “did not enroll their child in the school they preferred due to transportation difficulties.” Nearly half of private school and charter school parents in the sample reported school commutes of 20 minutes or more. Moreover, it’s likely that transportation poses an even larger obstacle in rural areas.

Fortunately, there is a technological innovation with the potential to make transportation safer, faster, and more affordable while solving numerous logistical challenges: self-driving cars.

The largely self-driving car is no longer just a vision, thanks to rapid advances in lasers, radar, GPS and mapping databases. If it weren’t for fear among innovators of getting too far ahead of U.S. laws and regulations, there would already be cars on the road doing almost as much driving as humans.

Google cofounder Sergey Brin recently predicted that self-driving (or “driverless”) cars would be a reality within five years, and now GM has announced a self-driving Cadillac will be available within two years. And like power windows, climate control, and airbags, innovations that begin as luxuries for the rich soon become standard features.

Self-driving cars will be able to respond to surroundings much faster than human reflexes, allowing for greater safety at much greater speeds. That will cut down on commute times, or allow people to work—or send their kids to school—further from home with the same commute time. Moreover, freed from the need to focus on the road, time spent commuting could be much more productive.

With commutes shorter and more productive, the distance that parents will consider logistically feasible will significantly increase. That could exponentially expand the number of educational options that parents consider within driving distance. Using Private School Review’s search feature, I found 12 private schools within three miles of my Arizona home, 34 schools within five miles, 69 schools within ten miles, 234 schools within 25 miles, and 304 schools within 50 miles. Now that’s choice!

Self-driving cars will also dramatically improve the mobility of people who are unable to drive (or drive safely), whether because of age, disability, or intoxication. As Dan McLaughlin described at The Federalist:

A child old enough to ride a bicycle or take the subway unescorted could be old enough to take a driverless car trip, especially assuming […] improvements in anti-theft technologies and the impossibility of even moving the car without being tracked.

In a recent EconTalk podcast, Professors Russ Roberts and Mike Munger discussed the potential for combining self-driving cars with “sharing economy” innovations like Uber. Uber is a smartphone app that allows users to summon a nearby driver quickly and efficiently. In the not-so-distant future, people will be able to summon a self-driving car almost instantaneously. As Roberts explained:

When you punched into the Uber App you’d say: I need to go to the airport with my four kids and my 7 suitcases, so send the shuttle; whereas, today I’m going by myself, so bring the mini. You’d have all these different options. You’d choose which one you wanted to come. There’s no reason to own a car any more. You start thinking about that: there’s no reason to have a garage. There’s no reason to have parking lots downtown.

With no driver and fewer accidents, these self-driving taxis will be less expensive to operate than taxis with human drivers. At some point, it will likely be less expensive to summon a self-driving car when needed than to pay for the gas, maintenance, insurance, registration fees, parking fees, etc. required to own a vehicle that sits unused for most of the day. Suddenly it will be logistically feasible for parents with three kids to send them to three different schools in three different directions.

Unfortunately, government regulators are putting the breaks on innovations like Uber and self-driving cars. As L. Gordon Crovitz recently lamented in the Wall Street Journal: “If fast-moving technology hadn’t collided with slow-moving regulators, this might have been the last summer you’d have to drive your own car.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has warned states not to allow fully self-driving cars, like the one Google is developing, except for testing purposes. The agency says it’s working on a study that will take at least until 2017. Regulators say they’ll release performance metrics for self-driving features, then run the tests, then issue regulations, and only then permit sales. Meanwhile, the agency has delayed a plan by Tesla to replace traditional side mirrors with more effective cameras.

Every month lost to regulatory gridlock causes real harm. Human error causes more than 90% of car accidents, leading to more than 30,000 deaths in the U.S. annually. The economic cost of accidents is more than $200 billion a year, representing more than 2% of GDP.

Every year’s delay also prevents a large number of parents from selecting the school that works best for their kids. Fortunately, while the fully autonomous cars may be another five to ten years away, semi-autonomous vehicles that can take over on the highway or in bumper-to-bumper traffic are just around the corner.

It’s impossible to know all the ways that the advent of self-driving cars will transform society, but the great potential for saving lives, improving efficiency, and expanding educational options is cause for excitement. Combined with educational choice programs, a society in which all children have access to hundreds of educational options may soon be a reality.

Jason Bedrick is an education-policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.