Yellowstone National Park Tests Electric Shuttles

Electric shuttles could ease congestion and help the National Park Service slash its carbon footprint.

T.E.D.D.Y. in front of Canyon Visitor Education Center
T.E.D.D.Y. in front of Canyon Visitor Education Center .

NPS / Jacob W. Frank

Meet TEDDY, the autonomous electric vehicle that Yellowstone National Park is testing this summer.

TEDDY is short for “The Electric Driverless Demonstration at Yellowstone” and also an ode to Teddy Roosevelt, who championed the creation of national parks during his two terms as U.S. president.

This low-speed, cube-shaped vehicle can carry up to eight passengers and features ample windows from which to enjoy the park’s wildlife.

Two TEDDY shuttles will cover two routes in the Canyon Village area this summer, making stops at the Visitors Service Center, two campsites, and two lodges—the park has more information about the routes and operating times here.

As well as looking cute as a button, the TEDDY shuttles are packed with cutting-edge technology. They feature fully electric drive trains made by Local Motors, a company headquartered in Phoenix, Arizona, as well as self-driving technology by Beep, an autonomous mobility firm, including 360-degree cameras, high definition sensors, and software. Although the shuttles are autonomous, attendants will be in the vehicles during the trial.

“We’re excited to be testing automated vehicle technology. The data we collect during this pilot has the possibility of shaping transportation for the entire @NatlParkService!” tweeted Christina White, Coordinator for External Affairs & Visitor Use.

As the U.S. economy reopens thanks to a successful vaccination campaign, national parks expect a record number of visitors this year and Yellowstone is no exception.

The world’s first national park hosted 658,513 recreation visits in the first five months of 2021, a 14% increase from 2019 and the park expects between 4.7 million and 5 million visitors this year, up from around 4 million in 2019—Yellowstone compares figures to 2019 because it was closed last spring due to the pandemic.

Crowdedness has long been a problem at Yellowstone, especially during the summer months. On top of that, the high influx of driving visitors often causes traffic jams along the park’s 310 miles of paved roads and poses great challenges to the unique ecosystem, said Yellowstone National Park superintendent Cam Sholly as he unveiled TEDDY in early June.

“As visitation continues increasing in Yellowstone, we are looking at a range of visitor management actions that focus on protecting resources, improving the visitor experience, and reducing congestion, noise, and pollution. Shuttles will unquestionably play a key role in helping achieve these goals in many of the busiest areas of the park,” Sholly told reporters, adding that the solution to the park’s traffic problems will largely hinge on getting visitors “out of their cars.”

During the event, Sholly highlighted the low carbon footprint of the TEDDY shuttles, which feature a 3D-printed structure made from recyclable materials.

“This type of technology can really help us achieve some of the major sustainability goals that we’ve set here in the park,” Sholly said.

Yellowstone had some 500 vehicles at the end of 2018 that burned more than 640,000 gallons of diesel and gasoline that year, so switching to plug-in vehicles will go a long way toward helping the park reduce its carbon emissions — on average, transportation accounts for about 30% of emissions at national parks.

The adoption of green vehicles by the National Park Service (NPS) could have an even bigger effect because it would contribute to efforts by the Biden administration to switch all federal, state, and tribal government fleets to “clean and zero-emission vehicles.” According to the Washington Post, there are nearly 650,000 vehicles in the federal fleet.

The good thing is that TEDDY is not alone because there is also CASSI (short for Connected Autonomous Shuttle Supporting Innovation), a program that started testing two similar autonomous electric shuttles this spring at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in North Carolina.

TEDDY and CASSI are part of the National Park Service Emerging Mobility program, an initiative by the U.S. Department of Transportation Volpe Center that seeks to improve mobility in national parks using emerging technologies.

“The goal is to evaluate how automated, electric vehicle technologies perform in public lands and guide long-term decisions about transportation in parks, including enhancing access and encouraging green, car-free trips,” says the Volpe Center.

Data Collection

From June 9 to July 12, the TEDDY shuttles will be taking passengers to and from two lodges to the visitor center and from July 14 to August 31 they will cover a route between the center and two campsites. 

The routes are different from one another, which will allow the park to learn more about how TEDDY operates “in very different operating environments.”

During the pilot, Beep will collect data on ridership, routes, and the vehicles’ performance. The information, the company says, “will help inform potential future deployments in national parks across the country.” 

In addition, the NPS is conducting a survey among passengers to get a sense of how popular the electric shuttles are and whether improvements are needed.

If it is anything to go by, Cindy Cannon, the first Yellowstone visitor to take a ride on TEDDY, was enthusiastic.

“I felt safe in there. I think it is a great idea… This will definitely help people. You don’t have to park. You can park your car at the lodge and then ride over here,” she said.

View Article Sources
  1. "COVID-19 Reopening Plan." National Park Service, 2020.

  2. "Yellowstone Visitation Statistics for May 2021." National Park Service, 2021.

  3. "Fleet and Transportation." National Park Service.

  4. "Sustainability & Green Parks." National Park Service.