ST. GEORGE — Washington County residents got a glimpse of the future on Tuesday, when Utah transportation officials kicked off three days of free test rides on an autonomous shuttle now touring the state.
The shuttle itself is about the size and shape of a gondola car. It doesn’t have a steering wheel or a gas pedal and can fit a dozen people. But with a top speed of 12 miles per hour, it’s not quite ready for mainstream transit.
Though St. George won’t be seeing a permanent autonomous shuttle in the immediate future, state transportation officials say that technology isn’t far off — and they want to make sure the public has a chance to engage with it.
“Will you get into a vehicle with no driver? Will you trust it? Will you put your kids in something like that?” said Chris Siavrakas, a project manager at the Utah Department of Transportation who’s been travelling with the shuttle. “Those are the kinds of questions we want people to explore.”
That includes folks like Cheryl and Larry Sandahl, who moved to St. George from Michigan nearly a decade ago, and visit the Dixie Transportation Expo almost every year.
They heard buzz that an autonomous shuttle would be making an appearance at this year’s event and were surprised to learn upon arriving that they would actually get to ride in it.
“It was great,” said Larry Sandahl, after taking his first lap around the conference center parking lot on the shuttle. “We’re looking at all alternatives using hybrids and battery-fueled vehicles, and so going autonomous is probably the next step in that evolution.”
The verdict: Both said they would take it again and would welcome such a shuttle if it were cost-effective for the city.
The St. George is the latest stop in a year-long tour launched by the Utah Department of Transportation and the Utah Transit Authority. Their goal is to learn best practices and introduce the public to the idea of driverless vehicles. The tour started last April and has stopped everywhere from office parks to commercial centers to the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind.
“We really wanted to ensure that we had a variety of deployment locations and use cases,” said department spokeswoman Lisa Miller. “And all of those were in very close proximity to Utah Transit Authority transit lines, either busses or trains.”
Jaron Robertson, who leads a UTA team developing mobility solutions, said the agency is looking at autonomous vehicles as a way of bridging the “first mile - last mile” gap. That’s the issue transit systems face when their lines don’t reach within comfortable walking distance of certain destinations or neighborhoods.
Robertson made clear that their goal is to connect existing systems to new neighborhoods and commercial centers, not replace jobs.
The shuttle will make its next stop at the state Capitol on March 3, when lawmakers can try it, too.