FARMINGTON — Some ride it to get food on their lunch break. Others are here to test ride the latest development in driverless vehicle technology. No matter their reason for climbing aboard, passengers are trying out the autonomous shuttle at Station Park, now free to the public.
"It's going to really revolutionize the whole automotive industry," said Collin Burton, who works at Station Park and rode the shuttle during his lunch break on Monday.
"When you look at all these cars that are just sitting here," he said, indicating a parking lot full of vehicles, "this is millions of dollars of inventory that people have tied up just in automobiles." Burton believes that driverless vehicle technology will eventually allow everybody to "have a car that gets them where they need to go at will."
A first of its kind in Utah, the shuttle is part of a year-long pilot project launched by the Utah Department of Transportation in collaboration with the Utah Transit Authority.
The driverless vehicle made its first public test run in February after a bill, legalizing autonomous vehicle testing on Utah roads, cleared the House and Senate during this year's legislative session.
The shuttle is being leased to the Utah Department of Transportation from its manufacturer, EasyMile, a French startup that recently celebrated its five-year anniversary.
While fully autonomous, federal regulations require an operator to accompany the vehicle at all times. Colin Timm, deployment engineer with EasyMile, was the operator on shift during Monday's shuttle ride.
Station Park is second on the project's five-stop itinerary that began in Park City and serviced the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials conference from May 20 to May 23. The shuttle, which moved to Station Park on Thursday, will be operational from 12 to 6 p.m. until July 6.
Each new route needs to be pre-programmed, federally approved and tested for a minimum of two days. Timm says this process, also a part of his job, can be lengthy depending on the route.
"A really, really long and complex route can take two weeks of actually on-site setup. A simpler route will be done in two days," he said, noting that the current site took about one full 40-hour work week to program.
Federal regulations also impose a 15 mph speed limit on the shuttle, which can hold up to 12 people and seat up to eight. The vehicle is also equipped with a ramp for wheelchairs.
"I think it's especially useful for people who have little kids or older people or people that are having trouble walking," said Julie Willoughby, who rode the shuttle with her three children and noted that someday "they can tell their kids, 'I got to ride on Utah's first autonomous shuttle.'"
UDOT ambassador Michael Sheffield, who also rode along on Monday, said the shuttle is meant to be a first- and last-mile mode of connection to the already existing transportation routes such as FrontRunner, TRAX and busses.
"The idea is that the shuttle helps funnel people towards those existing routes, not to replace them, but to compliment them to help bring people to them," he said.
Sheffield noted that a big reason for launching the pilot project is to allow people to test the shuttle for themselves and realize that it is safe. He likened the shuttle to "a mother with eyes on the back of her head," noting that it is equipped with eight LIDAR — light detection and ranging — sensors that allow it to "see in all directions, 360 degrees."
The vehicle's technology proved to be so cautious on a ride Monday, it slowed down to the point it almost came to a full stop after it sensed a larger truck that was sticking about half a foot out of its parking spot.
Timm said the vehicle can sometime perceive non-issues, such as heavy precipitation or a bird flying in front of it, as an obstacle and stop. He noted that the next step in the technology will be to integrate vision in order to detect non-issues that the LIDAR system currently perceives as an obstacle.
"We have cameras on the vehicle because we want to integrate vision. But that's one thing that we don't have now," he said.
Amy Mellen, who rode the shuttle to Harmon's where she planned to have her blood pressure checked before heading to her job at the Station Park mall, predicted the technology would help clean up Utah's air.
"I think that this will help with the quality of air and the air pollution that we have from the vehicles that are driving now," she said.
The shuttle will be moved to Salt Lake City's Business Park on 950 W. North Temple at a yet-to-be-determined date in July. A map and schedule of the shuttle's stops is available on the UDOT website.