Self-driving cars becoming reality

SWRI and others work to put autonomous vehicles on Texas roads

By Garrett Brnger - Reporter

SAN ANTONIO - The future is here — or at least it's on its way — and it's riding in a self-driving car.

As the road to autonomous vehicles becomes more well-traveled, the Southwest Research Institute, or SwRI, in San Antonio has been playing its part in helping the technology progress.

"It really, truly could be a game changer in a lot of ways of how we live our life,” says Chris Mentzer, the research and development manager at SwRI’s unmanned system section.

Mentzer’s section has done projects for both military and commercial uses as well as SwRI’s own research. All of it pushes toward a future of driverless vehicles.

“For the moment, we're trying to figure out what the hard problems are because that's what everyone's interested in getting help on fixing,” Mentzer said. “If it's an easy problem, nobody's going to come to you to fix that problem. We're really trying to attack that from a lot of different angles."    

The institute has tested different various technologies for self-driving cars on 15 types of vehicles, including four in its own fleet.

As sophisticated as the cars are getting, Mentzer doesn’t see a truly driverless car hitting the streets before 2021 — even then, only in limited situations. For one that can drive anywhere and anytime, he thinks it will be at least a decade.

"I think there's a lot of challenges left to solve,” Mentzer said. “I think that's the end goal, but I think there's a lot of things to hit on the way there to again, increase safety, all these active safety components.

Getting on the roads is a problem, too. Texas has a few bills in the state Legislature this year, and one has even passed the Senate.

As it stands though, Mentzer says, "There's nothing really in place that doesn't say you can't drive an automated vehicle, but it doesn't say you can."

San Antonio has offered up Fredericksburg Road from downtown to the Medical District as a testing area for autonomous vehicles.

Before any hit the road, the city and its "proving ground" partners need to come up with procedures and best practices. So it’s unclear when the first road test will be.

In the meantime, SwRI and others will keep driving the technology forward.

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