Beep beep: A self-driving public transit shuttle may come to Utah County

April 12, 2019

Taking a deep breath, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox looked straight ahead, held his cellphone to his ear and stepped directly in front of the moving vehicle.

Within moments, the driverless shuttle heading directly at him lurched to a stop. With a grin, he stepped out of the way and waved as the autonomous vehicle puttered forward along the empty street.

“This is an opportunity to prove just how safe it actually is,” Cox said. “We want people to get comfortable with this technology.”

An autonomous shuttle pilot program is coming to Utah this year, Utah Department of Transportation and Utah Transit Authority officials announced at a press conference Thursday.

People can start riding the driverless electric shuttle for free starting in May, and every few weeks the shuttle will move to different locations like the Utah State Capitol, the University of Utah, Intermountain Healthcare Center, Mountain American Expo Center, downtown St. George and Thanksgiving Point in Lehi.

“The goal is to get the public to come out, ride it, experience it and tell us what you think. Tell us how you see this might fit into your future,” said UDOT executive director Carlos Braceras.

At first glance, the driverless shuttle is a boxy, white and blue vehicle that is missing a steering wheel and gas or brake pedals. It doesn’t have a designated front or back, moves at speeds less than 15 mph and can carry up to 12 people.

Although a safety operator will sit inside the vehicle the entire time, the autonomous electric vehicle can operate without any human guidance or assistance.

“What I want is the public to start thinking about what is the community of their dreams. How do they want their communities to grow and develop into the future?” Braceras said. “I truly believe transportation helps drive that future.”

The first stop for the driverless shuttle is Station Park in Farmington, where shoppers can ride to and from stores and parking lots starting at the beginning of May.

“As we look forward to the growth of this state—particularly the Wasatch Front—looking at a variety of transportation uses is going to be important in finding great solutions,” said UTA Board Chair Carlton Christensen.

The driverless shuttle follows a pre-determined route and reacts in real time when confronted with pedestrians, potholes or other vehicles. The shuttle also has four wheels that move independently of each other and can deploy a motorized wheelchair ramp.

Every corner of the autonomous shuttle is equipped with laser radars, but the program is still being tweaked since the radars are sensitive enough to detect snowflakes as obstacles in the road.

The program costs an estimated $600,000 for the entire year and if successful, more autonomous electric shuttles could help reduce air pollution as well as fewer crashes and congestion on Utah roads.

“This is not 20 or 30 years away. The technology is here,” Cox said. “The technology is already safer than us on the road.”