San Antonio residents might see autonomous vehicles roll out in the Brooks development as soon as the end of the year, said Brian Dillard, the City’s chief innovation officer, on Monday.

The City Council Innovation and Technology Committee convened at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) on Monday to discuss autonomous vehicles in San Antonio. Dillard briefed the committee on what the Office of Innovation has been working on to facilitate the use of autonomous vehicles in San Antonio. 

The City’s innovation office has chosen innovation zones – including Brooks and the Southwest Texas Medical Center – as places to try “smart-city” technology. Brooks will be the first district to use autonomous vehicles, with drivers behind the wheel initially. The vehicles will stick to fixed routes within Brooks.

Dillard stressed the importance of the City being involved with autonomous vehicle technology early on to avoid situations where companies introduce a new product to the market as local government plays catch-up, citing the examples of ride-hailing and electric scooters.

“How can we be at the forefront of this before a private company drops something on top of us?” he said. “We want to be ideating around this.”

VIA Metropolitan Transit and Brooks submitted a joint application to the U.S. Department of Transportation for automated driving project funding earlier this year. Dillard said he hopes his office can get $500,000 to fund the Brooks autonomous vehicle project. The Office of Innovation is in the procurement process for autonomous vehicles.

Dillard said the office plans to purchase two shuttles that are either already outfitted with autonomous technology or to equip a retired City vehicle with the appropriate technology.

SwRI engineer Mike Brown explained that the vehicles use cameras and radar to “feel” their way around the world, similar to the way humans navigate.

“Their intelligence works like ours as well,” he said. “If you touch a hot stove, you have a reflex reaction. Vehicles often have reflex reactions and can do safety stops.”

The Southwest Research Institute has been working on autonomous vehicle technology since 2006. Engineers first started with a Ford Explorer, but have branched out into semi-trucks, sedans, and military Humvees. 

Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) cited President John F. Kennedy’s visit to San Antonio in 1963, when the president shared a story about an Irish writer who threw his cap over a wall so that he had no choice but to follow it.

“I do think it’s just poetic that we are repeating that throw of the cap at Brooks with this new technology and we’re doing it with partners like SWRI and UTSA and these other entities that are really excited about this,” he said.

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.