San Antonio eyes test for self-driving cars

Two-shuttle pilot program intended to begin by end of 2019

By Garrett Brnger - Reporter, Adam B. Higgins - Photojournalist

SAN ANTONIO - The city of San Antonio is looking to steer self-driving vehicles onto its streets and test them out before they merge into the mainstream.

The city is jumping in with Brooks and VIA Metropolitan Transit on plans to use two autonomous shuttles in a pilot program centered around the Brooks Transit Center, located in the former U.S. Air Force base turned mixed-use development. The intent is to get the six- to eight-person passenger shuttles into action by the end of the year, said Brian Dillard, the city's chief innovation officer.

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Dillard said state regulations are "pretty wide open" when it comes to self-driving cars. Being involved in this test is a way for the city to get ahead of a new technology rather than reacting to it, as the city found itself doing with ride-sharing and scooters.

"With this, we want to have a more proactive approach to us implementing that technology and understanding how it works before somebody comes in and kind of just throws it onto our community," Dillard said.

Leo Gomez, president and CEO of Brooks, said the shuttles will take people the last quarter-mile or half-mile of their trip, "literally taking people who take a bus to Brooks — here to the transit center - but still might be 440 yards away from the door of their employer."

Dillard says this would be the first time autonomous vehicles would hit public streets in San Antonio. The Southwest Research Institute, though, has been researching autonomous vehicles on its campus since 2006 and would also be involved.

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"They have an appetite to get out to a living lab and actually start to serve the public by doing applied research model to 'Does this actually work and how does the public react to it?'" Dillard said.

The vehicles would have drivers in them at first. Dillard said there is a "three- to five-year scoping" of the vehicles being driverless.

Dillard said the city tries to stick to a six- to nine-month time frame for "piloting and prototyping emerging technologies."

The end goal for any pilot project or prototype in "Innovation Zones," he said, is to test out the technology, see if it is successful and positively impacts the community, and, if it is, scale it out.

"Obviously we won't have autonomous vehicles doing long-distance runs, but connecting that last- mile/first-mile gap is a really big solution that's needed within the city of San Antonio, and we're happy to work with VIA and Brooks and everybody else to provide that solution," Dillard said.

Bringing self-driving vehicles to San Antonio is an exciting prospect for the chairman of the city council's Innovation and Technology Committee, District 8 Councilman Manny Pelaez.

"Up until a few days ago I thought autonomous vehicles are the future. Turns out they're already here," Pelaez said.

VIA and Brooks have applied for Department of Transportation grant to help with funding. If it doesn't come through, Dillard said the city, VIA and Brooks are willing to work together to find a way to make the program happen.

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