While a lot of attention has been paid to the electric scooters dropped virtually overnight in downtown Salt Lake City last June, another disruptive transportation technology is about to make its debut in Utah.

At the December meeting of the Utah Transportation Commission, the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT), in partnership with the Utah Transit Authority (UTA), announced they have selected the company, Easy Mile to operate the first self-driving demonstration shuttle in Utah.

The shuttle would be deployed at several key locations across the state to support connections to transit, improve mobility for underserved populations and facilitate access to local businesses. While other states are parading self-driving vehicles around as shiny new objects for the public to admire, UDOT and UTA are seeking to utilize the technology in a way that makes the best use of taxpayer resources and improves the functioning of the overall transportation system. They also want the public to experience the shuttle first-hand and provide their feedback.

The Easy Mile shuttle can hold up to 15 people and would first be deployed at the State Capitol building during the legislative session. The shuttle would operate on low-speed roads or pathways via a pre-programmed route, with an on-board host available to answer questions and ensure rider safety. The objectives of the service in the long-term would be to support first-and-last mile connections to/from transit, increase safety, and improve air quality.

Six to eight other locations in the state under consideration include universities, hospitals, event centers, and business centers where a self-driving shuttle would serve as a circulator to get people from a transit hub to a high-traffic destination.

UDOT and UTA’s self-driving shuttle signals a significant paradigm shift in how we think about mobility. While this will be the first time Utahns see a vehicle driving itself, the work to get it here has been years in the making.

If you purchase a new car today, it will most likely have technology such as lane assist, adaptive cruise control and automated parallel parking. In the future, self-driving vehicles will not only have this automated technology but will also communicate with other vehicles and the infrastructure (signs, road, bridges, signals, etc.) around them. That will require significant amounts of sophisticated software.

“To put it in perspective, the average automobile today has 100 million lines of computer source code in it. A 787 jetliner has three million lines of code,” said Blaine Leonard, Director of UDOT’s Transportation Technology Group. “A self-driving car has more than 300 million lines of code.”

Understanding how to harness connected autonomous vehicle technology that has 100 times the software than a large jetliner will be quite a challenge, but Utah is up to the task. For years, UDOT and UTA have worked together on a multimodal project on Redwood Road that has improved transit reliability by giving UTA buses signal priority when they reach an intersection and are behind schedule. The project has been so successful that the agencies have replicated it on the recently opened Utah Valley Express (UVX). If they’re running late, UVX’s 25 buses can ask the 47 signalized intersections along the route to give them a green light to help them get back on schedule.

In addition to cutting-edge approaches to connected vehicle technology, UDOT has worked for decades with cities and counties across the state to get approximately 90 percent of the 2,102 signals in Utah on one system. With a few clicks of a mouse, state traffic engineers can improve signal timing at virtually any intersection statewide. Utah is the only state in the country with this comprehensive signal system, which will be a significant advantage when self-driving vehicles need to communicate with the signal infrastructure.

“While it’s a digital language that the cars can understand...it’s a whole new paradigm for us,” said Leonard in a recent presentation at UDOT’s Technology and Innovations Summit. “If we’re going to be sending data back and forth to the automobile, we have to be on the same page. We need the same set of standards. It’s forcing us to talk to the automakers.”

Rep. Robert Spendlove (R-Sandy) has facilitated those conversations with automobile manufacturers for nearly four years. “We saw the rapid advances in self-driving vehicles...and we wanted to position Utah to lead in this area,” explained Spendlove.

In 2015, the legislature directed UDOT to study what other states had been doing regarding self-driving vehicles and make recommendations for Utah’s policymakers to consider. In the 2018 legislative session, Spendlove initially ran a bill to make it explicit in state code that vehicles did not need a human to operate legally but he held the bill back, saying he wanted more time to work through details with industry stakeholders.

At its meeting in November, the Legislature’s Transportation Interim Committee considered Spendlove’s revised bill, Autonomous Vehicle Amendments. “During the 2018 interim period, we met more than half a dozen times with automakers, shared driving companies, insurance companies, several state agencies, and others with the goal of developing something that everyone can really get behind,” said Spendlove. “Utah is encouraging the development, testing, and operation of these autonomous vehicles. We want to send the message all around that we are welcoming this technology with open arms. We want to encourage it in every way.”

That encouragement has finally paid off as Utah’s first self-driving shuttle hits the road early next month. 

Muriel Xochimitl is President of X-Factor Strategic Communications and the former Director of Government Affairs and Communications for the Wasatch Front Regional Council. She has also worked as a Communications Manager for the Utah Department of Transportation.