City staff are proposing two autonomous shuttles on San Antonio streets by the end of this year. The testing ground for the project will be Brooks City Base, the former military base turned mixed-use development.
San Antonio has taken a laissez faire approach in the past, trying to encourage researchers and other third-parties to roll out autonomous vehicles in San Antonio.
“We want this to be a proactive approach to explore innovative technology before it gets dropped on us by vendors,” said Brian Dillard, San Antonio chief innovation officer.
The shuttles would be used to transport people who need assistance with their first and last mile of travel, to and from a bus terminal. VIA opened it's Brooks Transit Center Monday. While this could include anyone moving from their homes to work at Brooks, the mobility challenges of the elderly was highlighted.
VIA Metropolitan Transit proposed a similar program to the U.S. Department of Transportation in a March grant.
“We want to meet a real need, we don’t just want a shuttle flying around. Lots of places have done that,” said Steve Young, vice president of technology and innovation for VIA metropolitan transit.
VIA and city staff agree Brooks provides a good test bed because the 1300-acre campus has well defined boundaries.
“It’s almost like a mini-city. It’s developing well and its developing in a suburban way,” said Jeff Arndt, VIA metropolitan CEO.
Fixed bus routes have been the mass-transit solution of choice for the past 30 years but those solutions often fail in suburban settings, where sprawling developments leave some far off the routes.
“We have to find ways to distribute people other than the traditional fixed-route bus,” said Arndt.
It isn’t clear how VIA will be a partner on the city’s project. The program put forward in the city’s Innovation Committee is under San Antonio’s SmartSA program that includes nine partner organizations including VIA, so it will include both organizations in some way.
But VIA officials said if it doesn’t get the grant dollars, it can’t financially support or spearhead the project. VIA applied for a $500,000 grant from the U.S Department of Transportation in March, but hasn’t heard back.
VIA along with the Texas Innovation Alliance are up against more than 70 other organizations for $60,000,000 in federal funds.
Dillard said regardless of the federal grant dollars, the city wants to push forward with some plan. It may be a public-private partnership.
“When it comes to leveraging financing, Brooks has talked to us about putting up some of the money,” said Dillard.
Currently Brooks has signed on to help match federal funds should they come through. Brooks was named one of the city’s three innovation zones last year. These zones throughout the city, where innovative technology can be tested before being rolled out city-wide.
This isn’t the first attempt by the city and community to entice the development of autonomous vehicles on San Antonio streets. In 2017, the city, along with several statewide stakeholders, was designated an Autonomous Vehicle Proving Ground by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The designation publicized the 10 partner areas across the country but didn’t live up to early hopes. The program was canceled by DOT.
Either program would include a physical driver for the foreseeable future, despite the autonomous label.
The plan laid out Monday could partner with USAA as well as Southwest Research Institute.