Officials at the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport want autonomous cars to drive and park themselves after the vehicle’s owner pulls up to the terminal. The airport’s innovation team is using $1.5 million to start testing how to do that.

The funding comes after the North Central Texas Council of Governments Regional Transportation Council approved on March 15 a second round of projects across North Texas to experiment on how automated vehicles could work in North Texas.  

Paul Puopolo, the executive vice president of innovation at the DFW International Airport, said the tests fit into the airport team’s focus on efficient mobility throughout the airport, including the dropoff curb and parking. Puopolo said this project will help the airport prepare for the new technology.  

“Autonomous vehicles are here,” Puopolo said. “It’s an inflection point in the market. So we need to start thinking about how we can work with them, manage them and also leverage them for our own internal use.” 

The goal is to understand what an automated parking system might look like, Puopolo said. Part of that is figuring out the infrastructure to help the vehicle navigate to a location. The vehicle needs to know where it is, where it should go and how to navigate there, he said. One benefit of figuring out a parking system is to minimize the parking space that is needed.

“You don’t need that space for that door to open anymore because it’s all being done by technology, so that can actually condense your parking footprint,” Puopolo said. 

Testing is in early, proof-of-concept stages and the team will be looking at cars that already have autonomous parking, and developing a parking system that would tell the car where to go, Puopolo said. 

A diagram of the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport’s autonomous vehicle curb and parking management project, from the agenda and documents of the North Central Texas Council of Government’s Regional Transportation Council. (Screenshot)

“It’s a lot of the infrastructure and a lot of the backend communication between a facility and a vehicle that we really want to test,” Puopolo said. 

The airport will take about three months to start testing the parking management system, and tests will last between three to six months, he said. He estimates visitors could see self-driving vehicles parking themselves at the airport in the next five to eight years. 

The DFW airport is one of many places thinking about how autonomous vehicles might work. In 2018, the Regional Transportation Council approved $31.5 million to test vehicles in the area and study how the region could prepare for the new technology. In the first round of projects, Fort Worth tested an autonomous vehicle truck port. Dallas, Richardson and McKinney also had projects. 

The city of Arlington is putting autonomous vehicles on the roads through an on-demand shuttle system that goes downtown and the University of Texas-Arlington called RAPID through funding from the Federal Transportation Administration and a partnership with the company Via. The city is continuing testing as part of the Regional Transportation Council’s second round of projects.

A Via autonomous vehicle drives in Arlington. The city, which doesn’t have a public bus system, has been testing autonomous cars since 2017. (Cristian Arguetasoto | Fort Worth Report)

The city’s five vehicles have taken 28,000 trips in its first year to Arlington residents through its automated service called RAPID, said Ann Foss, principal planner and the office of strategic initiatives in the city of Arlington.

The city of Arlington received funding from the Council of Governments to continue its project. Arlington doesn’t have public transportation like buses, but Foss said automated rideshare services may be a solution.

“People use the Via service to get to and from work and school and doctor’s appointments and all those kind of daily needs,” Foss said. 

The service is still limited – the cars serve a small radius, and drivers still have to be in cars to make sure everything works correctly. But as the technology evolves, she said, the city is interested in testing in different locations and use cases to see how the technology can work. 

Some are still skeptical about self-driving cars. According to a survey by the American Automotive Association in January 2021, 24% of drivers would trust a car that would drive itself. But 86% said they would be afraid or unsure about riding in a self-driving vehicle. 

Whitney Pent, a Fort Worth resident, said she worries autonomous vehicles used for services like taxis will take away jobs. She also worries about the errors of new technology and giving up control of the steering wheel, which is why she said she wouldn’t use the technology. 

“I’m trusting that (autonomous vehicle technology) won’t have a glitch,” Pent said. “That’s a hard leap to make.” 

The Via autonomous shuttles have programmed routes in a section of Arlington and around the University of Texas – Arlington campus. (Cristian Arguetasoto | Fort Worth Report)

Tom Bamonte, senior program manager for transportation technology and innovation at the North Central Texas Council of Governments, said North Texas is a hub for testing the technology, and sees it as an area for economic growth. 

“We’re doing these projects to put DFW on the map and send a signal to technology companies, transportation companies, and just kind of technology talent generally that we’re open for business,” Bamonte said. “We’re (a) good region to test, build, raise capital and innovate.”

Seth Bodine is a business and economic development reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at seth.bodine@fortworthreport.org and follow on Twitter at @sbodine120

At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Seth Bodine

Seth Bodine is the business reporter for the Fort Worth Report. He previously covered agriculture and rural issues in Oklahoma for the public radio station, KOSU, as a Report for America corps member....

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