Utah gets a look at an automated shuttle that may signal a coming era of driverless travel

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lt. Governor Spencer J. Cox exits the Autonomous Shuttle, after taking a test ride, as the Utah Department of Transportation, in partnership with the Utah Transit Authority, launched a new Autonomous Shuttle Pilot Project at the test track is across the street from UDOT headquarters on the west side of 2700 West (Constitution Blvd.) Thursday, April 11, 2019.

Utahns will soon have the ability to take a test ride in the state’s first fully autonomous vehicle as part of a pilot program featuring an automated street shuttle. Brought to the state by the Utah Department of Transportation in partnership with the Utah Transit Authority, the shuttle had its first public test run Thursday.

The vehicle is now legally able to operate on Utah roads after state lawmakers passed a bill allowing testing of the shuttle to move from a closed track to sidewalks and state roads.

“We want the public to experience it and start to see how this could fit into the future of our transportation system,” Carlos Braceras, UDOT executive director, told members of the media prior to the demonstration.

Utah is one of the fastest growing states in the nation and Braceras believes the technology will help mitigate some of the highway deaths that increased traffic would cause.

“Over 37,000 people die on our roads every year and 94% of all crashes are due to human error. What we hope and what we believe is that with the autonomous vehicle we are going to see technology help take over some of those driver functions and make driving safer,” he said.

The shuttle, which can seat eight people and has handholds to allow another seven or eight people to ride while standing will initially have a safety operator accompany riders. But Braceras predicted that after the technology has time to develop, this precaution will no longer be a necessary.

Part of Thursday’s demonstration was a show of the technology’s ability to detect and avoid obstacles or pedestrians in the way.

The UDOT executive likened the vehicle to the space shuttle from the 1960s animated sitcom “The Jetsons,” noting however that it’s “an incremental step” that likely “won’t appear very exciting because it is operating at a slower speed [15 miles per hour] but this is a safe way to step into this future technology.”

“I’m not ready to predict how fast this is going to happen but I would anticipate that by 2025 these type of technologies will be common,” said Braceras.

The shuttle is able to follow predetermined routes, which Braceras said would make it ideal for places like the airport, or to fill gaps in the home-to-work commute.

“We have a real challenge in closing the last mile in where people live or work and to destination locations,” UTA Chairman Carlton Christensen said, acknowledging the solution might be be provided by autonomous vehicles.

Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox also spoke at the event praising the state for championing the new technology.

“We are a state that cares deeply about entrepreneurism, about finding new and better ways to solve problems and do things better,” he said. Such vehicles could help mitigate some of the negative effects of Utah’s fast growth such as air quality and traffic.

Cox noted his own reliance on a personal car, with his daily commute between his home in Fairview and Salt Lake City.

“I drive 200 miles round trip every day, I’ve driven about 340,000 miles as lieutenant governor in the last five years and I can’t wait to have a vehicle that drives me where I need to go,” he said.