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Garbage Trucks And Potholes: San Antonio Launches Research And Development Program To Solve Problems

"City Hall To Go" is one of the R&D League's initiatives. The goal is to identify where department outreach and intake efforts overlap and to ailgn those efforts in a mobile truck that can deliver to low-income, hard-to-reach residents.
Office of Innovation | City of San Antonio
"City Hall To Go" is one of the R&D League's initiatives. The goal is to identify where department outreach and intake efforts overlap and to ailgn those efforts in a mobile truck that can deliver to low-income, hard-to-reach residents.

Garbage trucks that map the pothole landscape and traffic signals powered by artificial intelligence are just two of the half dozen projects San Antonio is taking on. But to do it, city staff needs back-up.

They’re calling in reinforcements for these and future innovative projects. The city’s Office of Innovation is partnering with USAA, Southwest Research Institute and the University of Texas at San Antonio for a new research and development program called the “R&D League.”

The partnership, which is loosely based on programs in Boston and Washington, D.C., discussed at the city’s Innovation and Technology Committee Tuesday.

The partnership is another example of the city looking outside its walls to find people who can solve problems. In the last two years the city has joined MetroLab network, a research organization that pairs universities with cities to produce tailored research on city problems. It also created CivTechSA, a program partnered with Geekdom to pair city departments with technology startups.

“We have smart people outside of the city that can add value to what we are doing, give us different perspectives,” said Brian Dillard, chief innovation officer for San Antonio. “We want them at the table.”

Related | CivTechSA: San Antonio Seeking Entrepreneurs To Tackle City Challenges

Overall the R&D League will tackle projects that lead to more city decisions made with good data, projects that lower costs through increased efficiency and increased customer service and equitable delivery. 

Using the city’s garbage truck fleet as a road mapping service is one of the projects that the staff said achieves many of its goals. The vehicles traverse seven million miles of city streets a year, about 25,000 miles and 95% of all city-maintained roads each week. And they hit a lot of potholes. That data in the hands of city engineers can drive funding and repair to the places that need it most, rather than waiting for citizen complaints, said Kate Kinnison, R&D administrator for San Antonio.

“We hypothesize that a better way to do that is to get a map and strategically plan our days,” she said.  

The city spent $1.5–2 million on street analysis last year, according to staff. If successful, and cost-effective, this program could have savings. 

Southwest Research Institute will outfit two trucks initially. They will test the design ahead of any larger commitment. The first try will feature cameras paired with algorithms to detect potholes. Those sensors will be vetted with more expensive LIDAR sensors, which wouldn’t be used in a mass rollout due to cost. 

“We are excited to apply new technologies to real-world problems affecting local mobility and infrastructure,” said Josh Johnson, director of critical systems at SwRI, in an email. 

According to SwRI it will also work with the city to incorporate AI into its existing traffic camera feeds to automate alerts. The city will give access to 5–10 of the 200 city-owned traffic cameras. According to the city, SwRI will provide more than $208,000 to ensure the garbage truck and traffic projects go forward.

Questions were raised at the committee hearing about who is driving the projects if it is in fact intended to serve the community. 

“We are just trying to get the train out of the station,” said Kinnison, “But the future of this program will be very much based on hearing from our wider community.” 

One way is through an idea portal that the city will partner with USAA on. The portal allows city staff and ultimately the community to make recommendations on improvements. The project is based on USAA’s own employee program that has spurred many patents. The company has implemented thousands of the ideas submitted over the years.

Related | Employee Visions Come To Life During USAA Showcase

In a release sent this afternoon, the program was celebrated by the mayor and city manager and enjoyed friendly questioning from some council members Tuesday. 

That friendliness may not withstand a big ticket cost if and when these projects come to fruition, which was hinted at by Councilman Clayton Perry.

“Is there gonna be city contribution and where is that money going to be coming from?” said the northside councilman known for watching expenditures. 

Three of the six projects have been funded through the testing phase. The city is eyeing multimillion-dollar grants for funding  the other three, as well as developing beyond the beta phase. Research and development in private industry is often costly and inherently risky.

“I think it would be wonderful to really robustly fund it,” said DeAnne Cuellar, a member of the committee who also works in technology. 

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org or online @paulflahive.

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org and on Twitter at @paulflahive