Some of the sights and sounds of Yellowstone National Park stand to take a slight turn come summer 2021.
There will be the usual elk, bison, bears and other megafauna, of course — and the tourists awing and gawking at them. Depending on the status of the COVID-19 pandemic, international tourists may be making a grand return to the world’s first national park. The large gas-powered commercial buses that tote them have a shot at making their reappearance, as well. And then, at Canyon Village, there will be the new shuttles. All-electric shuttles. Without drivers. You read that right.
“The shuttles are worth looking at,” Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly told the News&Guide last week. “We want to try this in small steps. We’re looking at the campground to the village, and the lodges to the village as a start.”
Someday, down the road, the park may attempt to run the small buses to destinations like Artist Point and other viewpoints of the Upper and Lower falls and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. But for the time being they don’t want to risk stranding riders away from developed areas in the event that the battery-powered shuttle vehicles run out of juice.
The two autonomous, electric buses that will run from late May through August in Canyon Village are one of several strategies that Yellowstone is testing to try to alleviate peak-season crowding in the most congested areas of the park.
Yellowstone is also considering debuting much-more aggressive staffing and traffic control measures along the most crowded geyser basin drives in the park, Sholly said. A transit feasibility study is also launching to look at local shuttles at Old Faithful and Canyon Village.
But the Canyon Village shuttles are happening — with wheels on the ground — in 2021. The outfit that won a contract to run them is Orlando, Florida-based Beep Inc. Shuttles. It’s a four-month agreement, and one the first contracts the company has landed out West or in a wild environment, CEO Joy Moye told the News&Guide.
“We’re doing corporate campuses,” Moye said, “and a lot of mixed-use developments where you’ve got medical centers and business centers, and retail and residential environments.”
No flagship national parks, though — until now.
“This is a pretty exciting use case for us,” Moye said. “We’re thrilled to be a part of it.”
Beep Inc. isn’t a manufacturer of electric shuttle buses. The collective of technology entrepreneurs who founded the business a couple years ago instead acquire electric buses from one of several manufacturers, like Local Motors and EasyMile. Beep Inc. then leaps through regulatory hoops, mapping and engineering of the routes, and deploying and staffing the vehicles.
Although driverless and lacking a cockpit, the vehicles will always have a trained “ambassador” on board the two shuttles, which will run simultaneously, Moye said. That person will snap into action in the event that, say, a FedEx truck is parked in the designated space where the Beep shuttle is programed to park.
“These vehicles are literally controlled by either a joystick or X-Box [style] controllers,” Moye said. “It’s not like you’ll see someone sitting behind a steering wheel crossing their hands.”
The guidance and collision-avoidance technologies installed in the shuttles use a combination of GPS and Lidar jointly with artificial intelligence that’s growing ever smarter, Moye said. In the event that something unexpected wanders into the road the vehicles can brake 10 times faster than a human can respond, he said.
While the manufacturer and model of vehicles Beep’s using in Yellowstone is not yet decided, Moye expects that the shuttles will carry about eight seated riders at a time. The two shuttles will run an identical, approximately 2-mile route on the same roads that other vehicles are using. The Beep Inc. shuttles will move about 75 people an hour.
Sholly views the electric, autonomous shuttles that are coming next May to Canyon as — potentially — a glimpse into a future when buses will run in many more parts of the park.
“People say we should have a parkwide shuttle,” Yellowstone’s superintendent said. “Maybe we’ll get there someday. I don’t think that’s a place to start, initially. But I think that these areas we know are highly congested and very popular — those are a good place to start.”