WEST VALLEY — Utah will soon enter a futuristic world similar to what's depicted on the TV cartoon show "The Jetsons," according to Carlos Braceras, executive director of Utah Department of Transportation.
Thanks to the Utah Legislature's passage of HB101, UDOT launched its Autonomous Shuttle Pilot Project Thursday, where its new self-driving shuttle will tour the state offering free rides to people in an effort to garner public comments and test the limits of the fully electric vehicle.
The project, which is estimated to cost about $800,000, is headed by UDOT through a partnership with Utah Transit Authority and a contract with EasyMile, a company that develops autonomous vehicles.
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who said he's a proponent for the technology, joined Braceras and Carlton Christensen, UTA board chairman, on Thursday for the shuttle's first test drive at the West Valley Driver License Division test track.
"We're looking at what the future of transportation is going to be and the state of where it is today," Braceras said. "Our goal is that every citizen that wants to has the opportunity to come out, ride in the shuttle and start to understand really the potential of what this is."
It's important to explore different options to solve some transportation issues the state faces, Christensen noted.
"We also know that we have a real challenge in closing the last mile between where people either live or work or destination locations in our service, in our own agency, our own system," Christensen said. "Autonomous vehicles, we think, are an important corridor, an important avenue to explore and we are excited about this partnership to look at that last mile connection."
UDOT is leasing the estimated $250,000 shuttle from EasyMile, which is responsible for maintenance throughout the program.
The increased growth along the Wasatch Front brings challenges along with it, Cox said, calling the program a step in the right direction.
"It really brings out the best in Utah. We have been known for years for innovation, we are a state that cares deeply about entrepreneurialism, about finding new and better ways to solve problems and do things better."
To comply with federal safety requirements, a trained person is required to ride on all self-driving vehicles. UDOT officials said the shuttle host is there for safety since they can switch the shuttle into manual mode if necessary and answer rider questions about the vehicle.
So far, the program only has one shuttle host — Colin Timm, deployment engineer with EasyMile. However, officials said they are looking to hire one or two more engineers, who Timm will train to run the shuttle as well.
Federal regulations also dictate the vehicle's slow speed — it can't travel above 15 mph.
The shuttle can hold up to 12 people and is equipped with a ramp for wheelchairs.
Kent Condor, a member of UTA's Committee on Accessible Transportation and who uses a wheelchair, tested out the system Thursday. He said looking for transportation alternatives is important.
"The more cars we get off the road, the more clean air we have," he said.
The shuttle must be programmed with each new course before it can drive on its own. It also has to complete test runs without passengers for each new route. Timm programmed the route it took Thursday and he included a zig-zag portion to show what the vehicle can do.
An emergency stop button is located inside the shuttle, while light detection and ranging sensors, referred to as lidar, are on the outside to detect when something unexpected, such as a pedestrian or animal, steps in its path and stops the vehicle.
A UDOT employee stepped in front of the shuttle Thursday and it stopped — without any help from Timm. But Timm still needed to help the shuttle navigate around unforeseen obstacles when they arise.
The vehicle won't work in bad weather and it stops in heavy rain or snow, which was unintentionally displayed Thursday during the third test drive when it started to moderately snow and the shuttle stopped mid-course.
Certain details are still being worked out, according to Chris Siavrakas, UDOT project manager for the pilot program.
Because the shuttle is fully electric, it will need to charge for eight to 10 hours a night, and Siavrakas said they're not sure where exactly that will happen at each location. The tour locations also aren't decided yet, but he said it will probably go to the University of Utah, St. George and several other places across the state with a lot of foot traffic.
"It's helping make connections where it's difficult to put a route in place so that's what UTA is really wanting to explore with this is, are there smaller connections that can be made with this type of technology," he explained.
He estimated the shuttle will stay at least a few weeks to a month in each location since it takes time to program the routes and run tests before allowing passengers.
While driverless transportation is in it's infancy, Cox said it's growing faster than people realize.
"I talk about this kind of stuff everywhere I go and people think I'm crazy and I keep telling them: 'Guys, this is not 20 or 30 years away, the technology is here, it is improving every year and it just gets better and better.'"
Officials didn't have details on the future of the autonomous shuttle past the pilot program.1 comment on this story
The tour begins in May at Station Park in Farmington and details about the shuttle's schedule are available on www.avshuttleutah.com.
Figuring out how to make the system convenient for people is crucial to its survival, Cox said.
"Mass transit is really important to the future of our state but it will never work if it's not convenient for people," he said. "And convenience means they have to be able get it near where they live or very close to where they live, that's the mile piece, it has to be inexpensive and it has to get them where they're going as quickly as possible."