My first autonomous vehicle experience

The Electric Driverless Demonstration in Yellowstone or T.E.D.D.Y is someone's real labor of love to desperately find a name for the autonomous vehicle experience at Yellowstone. I spoke to the gentleman who was helping with the pilot and he told me that it was the park's way to recognize Ted Roosevelt and they wanted to really find ways to do it. It was very fitting!

As I chatted up, he shared that there are three companies involved in the pilot. Beep provides the autonomous vehicle solution in partnership with a company called Local Motors which provides the 3d printed autonomous vehicle, and Robotics Research a company which provides software solutions for autonomous vehicles.

For a nerd, it was exciting, I was going to sit in a vehicle that was 3D printed, fitted with three LIDARs, pre-programmed by a bunch of software developers, and I could see the heat map on a kiosk.

At the Grand Canyon village, we waited for our turn to board the autonomous vehicle. We were promptly given face masks and about 8 people were allowed to board the vehicle. An operator briefed us about the vehicle, there was a brief safety demonstration video, and she pushed the joystick and the vehicle started to move.

The kiosk was tracking the movement of the bus on a green line with a heat map of all objects around it in Red. The vehicle mildly jerked to stop several times. It was basically trying to predict the direction in which the object would move before determining the next best step. For example, someone was washing the wiper in the parking lot and you could literally feel vehicle computing the next best step. The turns were wider and you could feel that the vehicle was program to be ultra sensitive to any movement.

I understood that the vehicle was programmed to stop at the STOP signs and at certain pick up points. As passengers alighted the vehicle, the operator had to manually record who was in the vehicle, number of available seats, and if a passenger was left behind due to no space, she had to notify the base via the phone. Seems like another sensor to track number of people in the bus and the commuter movement in and out of the bus was missing.

After about a 15-20 minute ride and stops, the vehicle came to a stop and we alighted the vehicle. My 8-year old commented that it just felt like his grand father driving the car! We just laughed and moved on but the difference was a 8-year old sat in an autonomous vehicle that felt like his grandpa was driving. The only difference is the computer was learning with every ride and would rapidly get smarter and be the future of urban transportation.

If you happen to be in the Yellowstone National Park, do stop by the Grand Canyon Lodge/Village and enjoy the ride. It is worth it - if nothing, you probably helped train a computer.

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