YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — A driverless electric shuttle began ferrying passengers in Yellowstone National Park Wednesday morning.
The new service is starting small. Very small. It will offer rides of just a few minutes from the lodges at Canyon to the Canyon services area where shops, restaurants, and a visitor center can be found.
“We know that we have done everything possible to ensure a safe service and transportation,”
Getting that ride on one of the boxy, eight-person electric shuttles will be available for free for about six weeks, then the service will switch to offering rides from the Canyon campground to the service area.
“The purpose of this deployment is to test the technology in a national park,” said Christine White, a Park Visitor Use Management specialist from the superintendent’s office.
The $360,000 cost of the experimental shuttles is paid for by the federal Department of Transportation and while the two shuttles in service this summer are not expected to make much of a dent in the big crowds descending on Yellowstone this summer, there is hope for the future.
“We look at that as a way that we can reduce congestion, in the future, we think that it’s something that we need to be out in front of,” said Park Superintendent Cam Sholly. “ I believe it is very possible that we’ll hit four, four-point seven to five million visitors this year in this park,” he added.
While most electric vehicles are whisper quiet, the new Yellowstone shuttles are full of noises. A speaker system explains what is happening to riders while an air conditioning system reverberates with a steady whoosh.
The ride is smooth and extremely large windows on the boxy electric vehicle give a great view of the surroundings. Per federal rules, passengers are required to wear seat belts and face masks.
Only six people can ride at a time because the other two seats in the eight-passenger vehicles are taken up by a pilot and a technician who monitors the self-driving computers. The automatic driving system relies on a sophisticated map of the roads it will travel and monitors the environment around the shuttle with Lidar sensors.
“We know that we have done everything possible to ensure a safe service and transportation,” said Racquel Asa, the Chief Marketing Officer for Beep Inc. which owns the vehicles and is running the service in Yellowstone this summer.
“I hope to learn how visitors respond to these shuttles. I think response will be very positive, at least I hope, particularly for those with mobility impairments and for children who seem to find this charismatic vehicle very entertaining.” Said Charlie Gould an MSU Fellow who is helping to run the service and is studying its impact.
Sholly has high hopes for the service tool. He says if people find the shuttles to be easy to access, reliable and safe, they are likely to use them in highly congested areas.
Asked if he would be ride one of the shuttles, John, a visitor from Nashville, Tennessee said, “Absolutely. These are super impressive. I wish the park a lot of luck on them.”