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YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. — Operator Bob Ryner kept his hand steady on the brake of one of Yellowstone National Park’s first automated shuttles, but he didn’t pull back when a car zipped in front of it.

Instead, the vehicle stopped on its own at an intersection just past Moran Lodge. Throughout the drive around the Canyon Village Visitor Education parking lot, Ryner watched intently for any people approaching or cars backing up nearby.

The 100% electric, autonomous “T.E.D.D.Y” shuttle from Orlando-based Beep Inc., slowed down on its own whenever it happened. Ryner occasionally operated the vehicle manually so he could get around long parked vehicles blocking the shuttle’s way.

“It’s looking at who’s coming, it’s predicting where they’re going to go and where they’re at. If it needs to stop or it needs to brake completely or partially, then it will do that,” Ryner said. “Automation works so much better than what manual can do.”

Starting Wednesday, members of the public visiting Canyon Village can hop on one of the park’s two new low-speed automated shuttles. It’s all part of a pilot project by the National Park Service to test how the technology operates in a national park setting.

Yellowstone is the first national park to test the technology, though the Wright Brothers National Memorial in North Carolina started testing their first automated vehicle system in April.

Up to eight people can be seated in one of the shuttles. Masks and seat belts must be worn. An attendant and onboard specialist will monitor each shuttle’s interface screens throughout the drive to make sure the vehicles are running soundly, said Racquel Asa, Beep Inc. chief marketing officer.

At a training session on Monday, Beep Inc. staff spent hours with first responders, park rangers, frontline workers and others to ensure they know how to operate a shuttle in the event of an emergency, according to Asa.

“Our team has been here for the last eight weeks, on the ground, on site, experiencing every season possible at Yellowstone National Park, and the stories that they’ve been sharing with us are really quite entertaining,” she said.

Christina White, project manager for Yellowstone’s Visitor Use Management Program, said the park is testing two different routes around Canyon Village this summer.

From June 9 to July 12, the shuttles will start at visitor services, stop at Moran Lodge, loop up to the Washburn Lodge area and return to the visitor services stop, White said.

July 13 is a changeover day, so there will be no public services.

From July 14 to Aug. 31, shuttles will start at the same Canyon Village visitor services stop, then head across the street to Canyon Campground. The shuttles will stop at camper services, midway up the campground, near the back of the campground and then head back to visitor services, according to White.

“The purpose of doing it this way is so that we can test the technology and how T.E.D.D.Y operates on two very different routes with very different operating environments,” she said. “Our goal is to learn as much as we can and apply this lesson in national parks in the future.”

The shuttles will run seven days a week in the summer, White said. The morning shift is from 7 to 10 a.m. Then the shuttles will go to a charging station in the village. Services will resume from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m.

“If you look at last year, even though we were closed, even though we were in the midst of a pandemic, we had the second-busiest August on record, we had the first-busiest September and October on record, and then this year we’ve already had the busiest April (on record),” said Cam Sholly, superintendent of Yellowstone National Park.

“It’s incredibly important for us to continue to work together to develop viable strategies to handle increasing visitation in this park,” he said.

Park officials are looking closely at the impacts of increasing visitation on resources, staffing, infrastructure, visitor experiences and gateway communities in and around Yellowstone, according to Sholly. They are considering a range of alternatives to address it, but there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

“Our visitor surveys show that 80% to 90% of visitors support a shuttle system in the park, as long as they don’t have to use it,” Sholly said. He wants to see if new technology can provide people with safe and reliable transportation options at hubs like Canyon and Old Faithful.

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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