TX: ‘A step into the future’: SwRI advances autonomous driving technology as VIA eyes potential applications

September 8—Sitting in the backseat of a shuttle passing through the campus of the Southwest Research Institute, Jeffrey Arndt recently caught a glimpse of the future.

The VIA Metropolitan Transit CEO appeared to be relying on the artificial intelligence guiding the 14-seat vehicle — a combination of ground-facing cameras, automation software and lidar technology — as it sped along at 25 mph.

“I think it’s a step into the future,” Arndt said as he watched the SwRI engineer in the driver’s seat, but whose hands weren’t on the controls. “There are elements that are still in development. But they need to be built incrementally. It’s exciting to see and imagine the opportunity this would give us.”

As Texas and the rest of the country anticipate a future with self-driving cars, the SwRI campus has become a laboratory for autonomous technologies that could help change the way San Antonios navigate the roads, as well as other AI research aimed at improving and maintaining audiences. infrastructure.

VIA, the San Antonio public transportation company, and SwRI have been in “consultations” about engineering research into autonomous vehicles, Arndt said.

“I think this decade is where we’ll see this really play out,” he said. “We are looking for opportunities to work on demonstration projects.”

Government, academia, and the private sector have long promoted fully autonomous vehicles as a means of improving transportation. And while it’s expected to take years, maybe decades, to get to the point where autonomous vehicles are ubiquitous and widely used, that hasn’t stopped enthusiasts from investing in them.

Or the state of pushing for them. In 2017, Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill allowing autonomous vehicles on Texas roads.

Two years later, San Antonio officials discussed how the technology might affect rates. And they announced they planned to introduce autonomous vehicles at Brooks, the former Air Force base turned mixed-use development on the southeast side, as a “first mile/last mile” alternative for bus riders.

They believed that autonomous ferries could transport many passengers between their homes and their bus stops. Work would focus on moving people from the then-new VIA Brooks Transit Center to their destinations.

But much remains to be clarified about such a pilot project. COVID-19 “put the brakes on” plans to test the driverless transit system in 2020, according to Brooks’ website.

“VIA has no current projects (autonomous vehicles) in development, although we continue to support the development of innovative mobility solutions and the future integration of autonomous options, with transit as the backbone,” VIA said in an email.

Brooks did not respond to requests for comment.

In the meantime, SwRI is working on autonomous driving projects for other clients.

show and tell

In August, SwRI Engineer Dan Rossiter helped organize a demonstration of the automated transportation service for Leadership SA program participants, along with members of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

“This mid-size passenger vehicle presents future opportunities to improve mobility and transportation access in neighborhoods where large buses cannot travel,” Rossiter said.

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At SwRI, Arndt described how an autonomous shuttle could first be used in the Brooks or Medical Center area, for example, by people looking for “last-mile” connections.

“I think that’s probably the first app we’re going to have,” he said. “I would operate on a route and schedule.”

Further steps could involve dedicated highway lanes, which Arndt called “the perfect place to have automated technology,” though he acknowledged that San Antonio lacks an extensive network of high-occupancy vehicle lanes, such as those the state uses to encourage carpooling.

He pointed to the Texas Department of Transportation’s multimillion-dollar plan to add a couple of lanes to about 120 miles of Interstate 35, from Bexar County to Williamson County.

“I-35 will have HOV on that second level,” he said. “So that will be an opportunity.”

A hypothetical long-term use, he said, would involve autonomous buses with fixed routes.

Arndt’s comments come as VIA is planning a $320 million citywide “bus rapid transit” system with dedicated lanes and reduced wait times that will take about five years to get up and running.

For now, the head of the local transit system said he has been checking with SwRI engineers for updates on their progress on autonomous vehicles.

AI and infrastructure

The value of AI research in solving infrastructure problems goes beyond transportation.

Rossiter sees a sense of urgency to build technologically advanced infrastructure as the region prepares for growth in the coming decades. He pointed to the destruction that winter storms have caused to existing infrastructure as indicative of the need for change.

“It implies that the infrastructure has to grow drastically,” he said. “If we keep doing what we’ve always done, it’s not going to scale unless we look at things differently and harness technology to do things smarter than in the past.”

In August, dozens of city leaders, many of whom are part of Leadership SA, joined Rossiter for several hours on SwRI’s sprawling 1,500-acre campus to take a look at infrastructure-related technology projects. Leadership SA, which was created more than three decades ago, involves introducing local leaders to resources like SwRI and other organizations.

Cody Porter, manager of SwRI’s intelligent machines section, described “crawling robots” to one group, as well as a robot designed to traverse power lines while charging on the line.

The group included Tiffany Grant, deputy director of staff for the nonprofit Communities in Schools in San Antonio, who wondered if such robots can take photos or videos.

“Yes, and it can record the GPS location of where I found this flaw and what was wrong,” Porter said. “There are a lot of interesting reasons to do these things.”

Porter also showed simulated footage of another robot performing potentially dangerous tasks, such as inspecting, stripping paint and painting corroded power lines.

“You could do this manually, but there aren’t enough people,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for about 15 years and I’ve never replaced a person with a robot.”

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“Let’s move this technology forward,” Grant said, “and let’s have this robot paint my house.”

Overcoming obstacles

Also present at the event was Beth Watkins, a judge for the San Antonio 4th Court of Appeals, who traveled in the SwRI self-driving vehicle. She marveled at the practical, everyday applications of the robots being developed at SwRI, including potential uses for autonomous vehicles throughout the city.

“When we think of infrastructure in terms of broadband and Wi-Fi, I find it easier to get because I already use it,” he said.

He was particularly impressed with the autonomous vehicle’s light sensing and ranging (lidar) technology, which can detect obstacles such as trees and pedestrians crossing the street, using lasers to create 3D representations of its surroundings.

SwRI engineers, who have been working on the autonomous shuttle for more than a year, had recently driven it onto the institute’s grounds so that its Ranger system’s ground-facing cameras and automation software could map the unique features. of the road, such as cracks, oil stains and other marks.

As Alexander Youngs, a senior research engineer at SwRI, sat in the driver’s seat during the demo event, he kept his hands off the wheel and let the system match thousands of features seen on the ground to data stored in the system. .

The system takes images for comparison, Youngs said, allowing it to be accurate to within 2 centimeters.

“Think of these images as a fingerprint on the road,” he said. “If we’ve driven there before, we can know where we are.”

With multiple lidar cameras attached to the vehicle, passengers watched a screen at the front of the shuttle showing reds and oranges indicating the road and surrounding signs, trees, and some people walking on campus.

“It was great because of lidar,” Watkins said. “It was a totally different way of doing autonomous vehicles than I was aware of.”

The lidar system has some limitations, which Youngs acknowledged in response to a cyclist who asked how the shuttle works in the snow. While it works well in light snowfall, the technology struggles to see the road when snow covers the ground. In addition, Youngs said that the vehicle can work in the rain, but the lidar can have problems when it rains heavily.

Arndt was in the autonomous shuttle when it came to a slight stop when its artificial intelligence detected a stop sign. He then continued forward and approached a crosswalk.

Arndt asked about the system’s ability to detect pedestrians about to cross the street, just as several people in the crosswalk began to cross the street. As the shuttle approached, the lidar picked them up and they formed shapes in the distance.

“That’s another feature that’s also in development or needs further testing,” Youngs said. “If the pedestrian is close to a crosswalk, it will slow down and let them cross.”

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