A Next-Generation Gateway to the Great Outdoors

Self-driving vehicles should deliver more than transportation. They should deliver experiences.

That’s the belief of Grayson Brulte, an innovation strategist and co- founder of Brulte & Co., a mobility advisory company based in Palm Beach, Fla. Rather than no-frills robotaxi service, he believes purveyors of autonomous technology should instead focus on providing premium experiences.

Imagine reserving a vehicle at a hotel and being carried through a Napa Valley winery tour — no designated driver needed. Or imagine taking a self-driving vehicle to a ballgame where the tailgating happens on board.

“Self-driving technology should enhance the experience — that’s the Holy Grail,” he said. “You make the transportation not boring. You make it one of the most interesting parts.”

Such journeys were on Brulte’s mind recently when the National Park Service unveiled a first-of-its-kind partnership with Beep, a mobility operator, in which autonomous shuttles will be deployed to carry visitors in Yellowstone National Park next spring. 

At least for now, the pilot project is strictly about transportation: Two autonomous shuttle buses will trundle around the Canyon Village base area, helping to alleviate congestion while connecting parking areas with popular amenities. Operationally, these likely will be some of the first experiences members of the public have with self-driving technology.

It’s not difficult to consider how the National Park Service could utilize such shuttles in the future. 

“You take your family out, and the vehicle itself is teaching you about Old Faithful or buffalo or the history of Teddy Roosevelt in the park,” Brulte suggests. “The vehicle becomes a mobile classroom. Think about the potential of that. You are bringing the classroom to nature. That changes the game.”

To be clear, that’s not part of the current pilot project. But it’s a compelling vision of how autonomous vehicles could be used within the national park system. One that Joe Moye, CEO of Beep, says would be a natural evolution of the shuttles’ human staffing and technical capabilities. 

He notes the vehicles know their location within millimeters, which would lend themselves to site-specific educational programming. Beep’s shuttles, on the road in Lake Nona, Fla., are outfitted with video screens for advertising purposes. As the company transitions from a human safety driver aboard shuttles to a virtual ambassador in the years ahead, such a voice could double as tour guide.

All this aligns with a vision for AVs sketched by Sarah Sandman, an artist with the TED Fellows who was asked by Lexus to help think about new autonomous-vehicle designs.

“One of the most magical moments of travel that I’ve ever experienced was on the Empire Builder train going cross country,” she said of the Amtrak route that connects Chicago and Seattle. “There is a glass car. You can swivel and look out to see what’s happening in the glorious world.”

Autonomous vehicles can enable and enhance these experiences, forging connections with the outside world rather than cocooning occupants inside. At their best, they may reinforce the old adage about travel — getting there is indeed half the fun.

As featured in Automotive News on December 21, 2020