Self-driving vans could be transporting passengers around Brooks on the Southeast Side by the end of the year.
The city of San Antonio plans to solicit bids for two driverless vans, seating six to eight passengers each, in the next several months, said Brian Dillard, the city’s innovation director.
Dillard’s comments came during a break Monday at the City of the Future Conference. Panelists at the event, hosted by city-owned utility CPS Energy, put a heavy emphasis on transportation.
The Brooks service would be the first time commercial autonomous vehicles have carried passengers in San Antonio.
Autonomous vehicles have been tested throughout the U.S. In San Antonio, grocery store chain H-E-B said last year it would test driverless vehicles to deliver groceries in the Olmos Park area.
Commercial service for passengers is rarer.
Waymo, which is owned by Google parent Alaphabet, has offered an autonomous ride-hailing service in the Phoenix area since 2017. Late last year, the company removed safety technicians from some of its vehicles, offering a full self-driving experience.
City officials haven’t determined yet whether the vans at Brooks will initially have safety technicians onboard.
VIA Metropolitan Transit opened up a bus center at Brooks’ entrance in September, but doesn’t provide service into the 3-square-mile area that makes up the former Air Force base.
The autonomous vans would be “the last mile solution,” Dillard said.
If everything goes as city officials hope, the two vans would be on the road by the time gourmet food company Cuisine Solutions opens up a 500-person factory at Brooks. The company is scheduled to complete its $120 million facility by the end of 2020. The expectation is that some hourly workers won’t have cars.
Brooks is also home to numerous other businesses and academic facilities, such as Mission Solar, Mission Trail Baptist Hospital and the University of the Incarnate Word’s School of Osteopathic Medicine.
Dillard said VIA might add two of its own driver-operated vans to supplement the driverless service.
The aim of the autonomous service is to fill the need for short trips from the VIA station, but also to test the technology.
“We really just want to be proactive about exploring this (self-driving ) technology and understanding how it works” he said.
Brooks agreed to work with city officials to pilot the driveless technology. Marques J. Mitchell, Brooks’ director of planning and development, said city officials liked the idea of testing the self-driving technology in a controlled area with clear boundaries.
“We offered to be a proving ground for self-driving technology,” he said.
Ultimately, Brooks wants transit service within the former base, whether it’s driver-operated or self-driving.
Mitchell said the summer heat wouldn’t be rough on an employee walking to work from the VIA station at Brooks.
Even after the awarding of the contract, Dillard said the city will need to work out the logistics, including deciding whether the vans would have designated lanes or would share the roadway with other cars.
City officials selected Brooks as one of three “innovation zones” in 2018. The idea was to test smart technology to make San Antonio a more inviting place to live. The other two zones are downtown and the South Texas Medical Center.
Other parts of the project include adding sensors to overhead streets lights in all three areas to monitor air pollution and heat.
Downtown, the city also plans to use the sensors to send information on available parking spaces to smart devices. The goal is prevent drivers from endlessly roaming center-city streets looking for a space and adding to air pollution. A test project is scheduled to begin in the Shops at Rivercenter area in the next several months.
Randy Diamond covers aviation, energy and manufacturing in the San Antonio and Bexar County area. Read his stories and more local coverage on our free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. | [email protected]