Yellowstone introduces autonomous shuttles

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Yellowstone National Park announced Wednesday that it is testing its first autonomous electric shuttle. 

T.E.D.D.Y., or The Electric Driverless Demonstration in Yellowstone, is a small vehicle with a big job. 

Annual visitation to the park has increased by almost 40% since 2008 – by 1 million people in the last decade, causing issues like parking lot overflow, traffic jams, unsanitary conditions, roadside soil erosion and vegetation trampling.

In 2019, Yellowstone was the sixth-most visited national park in the U.S., with over 4 million visits. 

In an effort to manage the increase, park management has introduced the automated vehicle technology, partnering with autonomous mobility company Beep, Inc. and the U.S the Department of Transportation.

“We’re very pleased to participate in this shuttle pilot and test this evolving technology,” Yellowstone superintendent Cam Sholly said in a news release. 

“As visitation continues increasing in Yellowstone, we are looking at a range of visitor management actions that focus on protecting resources, improving the visitor experience, and reducing congestion, noise and pollution. Shuttles will unquestionably play a key role in helping achieve these goals in many of the busiest areas of the park,” he said.

T.E.D.D.Y. will operate on two different routes with different operating environments seven days a week from June through the end of August.

The shuttles, as well as environmental conditions, will reportedly be actively monitored throughout the duration of the pilot program.

Mapping T.E.D.D.Y. routes in the Canyon Lodge area
(Credit: NPS / Jacob W. Frank)

A primary goal of the project is data collecting: understanding how this technology operates in parks through information about ridership, speeds, stop times, and attendant overrides.

Parkgoer feedback will also be critical to the pilot and informing next steps in Yellowstone and parks around the country.

Visitors can opt to ride one of the two low-speed T.E.D.D.Y. shuttles for free through August 31 within the Canyon Village campground visitor services and adjoining visitor lodging area.

All passengers are required to wear masks while onboard the shuttle and disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer pumps are available for use. 

Other COVID-19 mitigations include temperature checks, disinfecting after each use and at the end of the day, and keeping shuttle doors open at a stop when no passengers are on board.

“If a shuttle attendant is diagnosed with COVID-19, a shuttle will immediately be taken out of service and decontaminated by a third-party cleaning contractor prior to the shuttle going back into service,” the release’s FAQ section noted. “Beep will continuously monitor the number of COVID-19 cases and adapt to the current environment to provide enhanced cleaning, sanitizing, and COVID-19 safety protocols that align with federal, state, and local health guidance.”

T.E.D.D.Y. 1 and 2 in front of Moran Lodge
(Credit: NPS / Jacob W. Frank)

Other safety methods and provisions include an onboard attendant and a Risk Management Plan to train park staff and first responders.

Lastly, Beep Inc. is required to regularly report all data tied to ridership, departure times, route performance and battery performance to the National Park Service and report any crashes or near-crashes to Yellowstone law enforcement agents and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. 

The program is funded by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA)’s Federal Lands Transportation Program.

If it is successful, it will be used to aid in informing “considerations for emerging technologies like this throughout the park system and give us a better sense of what’s needed.” 

“We’re excited to be testing automated vehicle technology. The data we collect during this pilot has the possibility of shaping transportation for the entire @NatlParkService!” Christina White, coordinator for External Affairs and Visitor Use, exclaimed in a Wednesday tweet.

In a separate study, Yellowstone is partnering with the NPS Intermountain Regional Alternative Transportation Program, the NPS Denver Service Center, and the DOT Volpe Center to analyze the opportunities, risks and costs of local shuttles possibly originating at Old Faithful and Canyon Village.

The park will examine potential system locations, routes, stops, fleet requirements, business models, ridership and costs. 

The study will conclude in 2022.

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