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San Antonio chosen as ‘proving ground’ for autonomous vehicle testing

Senior research analyst Marc Alban sat behind the wheel of a Lincoln MKZ hybrid as it smoothly made figure-eight loops while maneuvering through the Southwest Research Institute’s cone test track.

There’s nothing all that unusual about the drive, except that the car is driving itself.

“This one I’ve crept through real slowly and not hit anything,” said Alban as the vehicle’s steering wheel rolled back and forth, the car driving itself deftly through the narrow cone track at about 15 MPH.

The nonprofit research institute is one of the nation’s few “proving” grounds chosen by the U.S. Department of Transportation Jan. 24 to test autonomous vehicles. SwRI engineers have been working for more than a decade on the new technology. Automated vehicles are currently being tested on SwRI’s campus while San Antonio’s VIA Metropolitan Transit authority will soon be testing some of the technology on buses running along its Primo route from Fredericksburg Road up to Medical Drive.

The DOT chose 10 different proving grounds — Texas being one of them — to collect data and help develop guidelines for integrating autonomous vehicles into the country’s transportation infrastructure.An alliance of groups including SwRI, the Texas Department of Transportation, Texas A&M Transportation Institute, the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Transportation Research as well as 32 municipal and regional partners across Texas — including Houston, Dallas/Fort Worth, Austin and El Paso — will test and tweak advance autonomous vehicle technology in Texas.

Work on autonomous vehicles at SwRI started back in 2006, when the institute committed $5 million to jump start the research. To this day it is the most money SwRI has committed to any one specific research project, said Chris Mentzer, SwRI’s manager for research and development of unmanned systems.

The program initially involved half of SwRI’s 10 divisions, 15 employees and a Ford Explorer named MARTI, which stands for Mobile Autonomous Robotics Technology Initiative. Since then it has now grown to a work force of around 40 and 20 vehicles ranging from MARTI and the autonomous Lincoln MKZ hybrid to multiton military transport trucks and a red semi-trailer truck (without the trailer) that the engineers nicknamed “Big Red.”

“We’re really, at the end of the day, we’re an engineering-for-hire company,” Mentzer said. SwRI is a nonprofit and doesn’t mass produce its inventions for sale. “We’re not going to sell you products, so we have to be smart and quick and do things that they can’t do on their own.”

Project manager Mike Brown said SwRI has been working to create a “South Central Texas research triangle” between SwRI, UT and Texas A&M to combine their resources, and that the U.S. DOT Proving Ground designation will improve collaboration.

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