By Mike Gast
If you’ve been to Yellowstone National Park in the past 10 years, you know the frustrations of bad roads, bison jams and way too many tourists.
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This summer, park officials are taking a tiny first step to possibly taking the pressure off a few Yellowstone roads with a unique pilot project featuring driverless vehicles.
Beginning this month, Yellowstone National Park will start a shuttle service using electric-powered, low-speed automated shuttle buses. A similar project will run concurrently at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in North Carolina.
In Yellowstone, the shuttles will operate all summer long on a small loop among several campgrounds, lodges and visitor centers in the Canyon Village complex within the park. From May 24 to July 12, the shuttles will run from the Visitor Services Center to Moran Lodge to Washburn Lodge. From July 14 to August 31, the shuttles will switch routes and run from the Visitor Services Center to the Amphitheater & Campground Services Center to the Middle Campground and finish at the Upper Campground. Again, all routes are within the Canyon Village complex.
While it may be a bit unnerving to board a bus with no driver behind the wheel, park officials said there will be a trained attendant on board during operation who can take control should a problem occur (like a sudden left turn into Canyon Falls). The goal of the project is to understand how automated vehicle technology can be used in parks and how visitors perceive and engage with the services.
Anyone boarding the bus will have to mask up and undergo a temperature check for COVID-19. The attendant will be wiping down the seats and seat belts after each trip, and the shuttle will be fully sanitized at the end of each day.
The no-hands shuttles were designed and built by a company called Beep, Inc. Yellowstone was selected as one of the test sites because it is the sixth-most-visited national park in the U.S. (more than 4 million visitors a year).
Park officials said the rigs have undergone extensive testing and – if it makes you feel better – all crashes and near-crashes will be quickly reported to the National Highway Safety Administration.
The pilot project is being funded through the Federal Lands Transportation Program and the Federal Highway Administration.