Yellowstone National Park officials unveiled their newest project to ease congestion on Tuesday: two autonomous vehicles affectionately known as TEDDY (The Electric Driverless Demonstration in …
Yellowstone National Park officials unveiled their newest project to ease congestion on Tuesday: two autonomous vehicles affectionately known as TEDDY (The Electric Driverless Demonstration in Yellowstone).
The new $300,000 additions to the park’s garage are the first of their kind in a national park. They were created in a partnership between Beep and American autonomous vehicle manufacturer Local Motors, and will operate in limited areas around Canyon Village while being tested.
Despite being capable of driverless deliveries, “service ambassadors” will be on hand to invite park visitors aboard and explain technology, at least during the test phase. The vehicles will also be shadowed by technicians in escort cars until they’re fully tested.
Licensed in Park County as YELL1 and YELL2, the two boxy miniature buses are capable of carrying eight visitors. They won’t make a huge impact on congestion at this point, but the project does provide a glimpse into the future as visitation nears the 5 million mark.
“[We’re] testing this technology that you’re seeing here today, for what could happen in the future,” said Cam Sholly, Yellowstone National Park superintendent.
Sholly has been aggressively pursuing options to deal with increasing amounts of tourists, park congestion and visitor satisfaction. Despite the global pandemic shutting down most international travel and some early domestic visits last season, the park broke records for attendance in August, September and again in May.
“I think it’s going to be the busiest visitation year on record for Yellowstone National Park,” Sholly told a small crowd of journalists, employees and onlookers at Canyon’s visitor center. “It’s incredibly important for us to continue to work together to develop viable strategies to manage increasing visitation in this park.”
The superintendent knows public transportation may be a hard sell to visitors.
“Our visitor surveys show that 80 to 90% of visitors support a shuttle system in the park, as long as they don’t have to use it,” Sholly said, getting a laugh.
Immediate goals are limited, but the hope — should they prove successful — is to use the new vehicles to safely transport visitors from parking lots to the park’s most popular and congested attractions.
The plan is to “start small, then go big,” said Racquel Asa, chief marketing officer for Beep.
The company has 19 autonomous vehicles (AVs) operating on public streets in the country, although most are in downtown areas with more common transportation needs. There are AVs operating at one other NPS property: Wright Brothers National Memorial in North Carolina. But that park doesn’t have many of the issues the vehicles will face in Yellowstone.
The big question at the unveiling ceremony was how the vehicles will react if a person or bison jumps out in front of a driverless vehicle. Asa said the system cannot only act to quickly avoid collisions, but can analyze the general direction and speed of the obstruction; it has the potential to interrupt the vehicle’s program to drive around a bison if necessary.
The pilot project will be sharing results with other national parks, said Christina White, visitor-use management coordinator for the park. “Our goal is to learn as much as we can and apply this lesson in national parks in the future.”
The future of how the park approaches increased visitation is uncertain. Sholly said the option of using AVs to deliver visitors to the park from gateway communities is at least years away, if ever. But congestion is a topic he has focused on from the beginning and AV technology, if successful in this small test, is a part of Sholly’s plan to improve visitor satisfaction.
“The people that are most irritated [with congestion] are locals, employees and people who’ve returned to the park multiple times,” he said. “People that are here for the first time and seeing a bison or grizzly for the first time aren’t necessarily frustrated sitting in traffic looking at those animals.”
The superintendent added that the need to serve visitors doesn’t supersede his mission to protect Yellowstone’s ecosystem and wildlife.
“We’re starting micro-geographically and we’ll look at bigger options later if necessary,” Sholly said, adding, “This type of technology can really help us achieve some of the major sustainability goals that we’ve set here in the park.”