For now, the COVID-19 pandemic has put the brakes on plans to test a driverless transit system for Brooks’ employees, officials said.
Autonomous vans could someday shuttle folks across the former air base, now a South Side economic magnet boasting 3,300 workers in 40 businesses with the labor force expected to grow.
Brooks, formerly known as Brooks City-Base, has miles of roads, and in places, vast distances between locations including the new VIA Metropolitan Transit bus stop.
It’s on the edge of the campus, leaving some riders with long walks to destinations on the 1,308-acre mixed-use development. One solution for footsore laborers, if plans come to fruition, is hopping into a driverless van for the last leg of the trip.
The city, working with Brooks and other entities, had been putting together a request for proposals to create an autonomous-vehicle demonstration project. The idea was to have two test vans in the controlled environment of Brooks, as the development’s numbers swell with new businesses.
That was in February. However, with San Antonio and much of the world sheltering in place since mid-March to avoid the spread of novel coronavirus, plans for the project are “suspended indefinitely,” Brian Dillard, a chief innovation officer for the city, noted in an email.
He didn’t respond by press time with follow-up questions about the possible costs involved and how the demonstration could benefit the use of self-driving vehicles in San Antonio’s future.
Brooks’ officials are enthusiastic about the demo and hope it can get back on track when the virus wanes and as new buildings go up, planned restaurants open and the hotel on the premises reopens.
Because VIA buses won’t enter the campus, “Brooks is looking at this ‘last-mile’ solution for workers and hundreds more who are coming,” said Marques Mitchell, director of property development at Brooks.
Mitchell said Brooks wouldn’t only be able to have set routes for autonomous vehicles, but also could shut down private streets on the campus for entities such as Southwest Research Institute, which has studied self-driving cars for years, to conduct controlled experiments.
Mitchell said it will become imperative to have this kind of service to help those moving from the VIA transit center and internally between different locations at Brooks.
The developing Greenline at Brooks is slated for multiple restaurants such as chef Johnny Hernandez’s La Gloria and an offshoot of chef Jeff Balfour’s Southerleigh Fine Food & Brewery.
Both spots originated in the Pearl complex just north of downtown.
Major employers at Brooks include Mission Trail Baptist Hospital and injection-molding plastics firm Okin BPS. The University of the Incarnate Word also has its School of Osteopathic Medicine in four buildings, which were formerly the Air Force’s School of Aerospace Medicine. Three charter schools are on Brooks’ campus, too.
In the works is a 290,000-square-foot light-industrial facility for Cuisine Solutions. The firm makes gourmet entrees and sauces for the food-service industry. Mitchell said the company would employ 500 to 700 people within the next four years.
Brooks also has a speculative building with 350,000 square feet under development, capable of housing numerous future employers, he said.
Mitchell added the autonomous vehicle also could serve as an amenity for Brooks’ Embassy Suites hotel guests and the 1,300 people living in its apartments and townhouses.
The self-driving transport, which enterprises like Google’s parent company Alphabet have been testing in markets such as Phoenix in recent years, are seen as the wave of the future. They could fill a public-transit gap or complement “gig-economy” solutions such as Uber or Lyft ride hailing.
While several international tech companies are experimenting with driverless vehicles, more local businesses are embracing trials of the technology.
San Antonio-based grocery chain H-E-B launched a program late last year to test self-driving delivery service in the Olmos Park area.
The company has partnered with California firm Udelv to provide the autonomous delivery vehicle, according to an H-E-B statement last July.