CONCORD, Calif. — It looks like something from a Cold War nightmare — a ghost town uninhabited for decades, abandoned after a nuclear war, overgrown with weeds and deathly silent. Single-pane windows crack and crumble to concrete floors below. Trees sway lazily in front of a building that could have been an elementary school. A single car, an Acura RLX, turns a corner.
On the road in front of it stands a figure: pale white, motionless, with a black and yellow duffel bag at his feet. He might be waiting for a friend to pick him up. He doesn’t move as the Acura approaches, and so the car swerves to avoid him.
It’s the most mundane of scenes, a daily occurrence on any number of residential streets in any city. And it just might transform the east San Francisco Bay Area suburb of Concord.
While the car’s maneuver happens countless times each day across the U.S., what makes the scene on June 1 at GoMentum Station, the former Concord Naval Weapons Station, special is that the driver had no hands on the wheel when the car swerved. The car recognized the dummy, planned an evasive maneuver and executed it without control from a human.
And it’s just the beginning for Concord and Contra Costa County. Government leaders in the area are banking on autonomous vehicle testing to become ground zero for a massive development effort meant to create jobs, reduce congestion, and improve the health and safety of the area’s residents.
“We want to make this the autonomous vehicle testing [center] at least for the West Coast, if not for the United States,” said Randell Iwasaki, executive director of the Contra Costa County Transportation Authority.
Iwasaki insists he’s not trying to create a second Silicon Valley, but his methods do reflect some components of the South Bay that its proponents point to as reasons for its success in the technology industry — namely, higher education. As Stanford University served as the setting for the beginning of Google, Iwasaki said he hopes to see a higher education institution connected with the autonomous vehicle testing. And that means economic development.
“They also want to build a tech center, a four-year university … so what would you like a tech center to focus on into the future, old technology or new technology?” said Iwasaki. “So if you have a test facility, you’re going to have a lot of PhDs running around. You’ll have a lot of professors, you’re going to need automation engineers, you’re going to need robotics engineers. You’re going to need maintenance people. You’re going to need the trades.”
And there’s much more space available in the Concord Naval Weapons Station. The city’s early plans for the 5,000 acre space include a park, 6 million square feet of commercial space, 12,000 housing units and a sports complex. Iwasaki wants to invest in transit-oriented development as well — widening a nearby highway from four lanes to eight and building a new station for Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) trains.
That alone should, theoretically, reduce the number of miles the residents of the new area would have to travel in personal vehicles, but it isn’t the only green aspect of the city’s development plans. The area will also feature bicycle lanes, “purple pipes” for recycled water use and other green building concepts.
And if the transportation agency gets a ballot measure passed, it will also be able to set aside money for future technology — even things not available right now.
“There are very few agencies like ours that are modeling future technology into their long-range plans,” Iwasaki said. “Most agencies will take these technologies and say, ‘Oh my God, population is growing, we’re getting older, so [vehicle miles traveled] is going to rise and greenhouse gases are going off the charts.’ We’re saying, ‘No, no, no.’ In 25 years, we’re going to implement so many connected and autonomous vehicles, and if we do it right, and we’re working on the right projects, they’ll follow closer, which means your roadways will get more efficient and more effective. And if they don’t crash, you’re going to reduce congestion, so your delay is going to go down.”
Some of that future technology includes connecting vehicles with infrastructure, people and other automated vehicles so that they can cooperate. Iwasaki posited that such connections could vastly improve public transit — for example, if a BART train is running late, a computer-driven system could then delay a bus picking up passengers from the train station. Then intelligent traffic signals could work to speed the bus back up so it was on time again.
That’s not just about convenience. It’s about making transit more appealing so that more people use it instead of driving single-passenger vehicles that contribute to congestion problems on the highway.
“If it works right, make fewer stops and then make the buses go faster,” said Iwasaki. “So now I don’t have to wait in the bus for an hour and 10 minutes, I actually can get there in 35 minutes, and I might take the bus. Then you operate more buses because you can take more people on the buses, and you get more fares.”
As the testing space changes, the testing facility might also be used for police and fire training as well. And increasingly, automakers like Honda — the company that built the automated Acura RLX — are testing out various concepts of automated and connected driving on public roads. But Jim Keller, senior manager and chief engineer of Honda R&D Americas, said places like the GoMentum testing facility inside the naval base are necessary for research and development.
“The establishment of a cooperative car society is not something any single automaker can accomplish alone. Again, it involves connecting cars with pedestrians, infrastructure, communication networks and vehicles even made by other companies. To create something that truly helps people, it involves testing, and a whole lot of it,” Keller said. “Without question, there is much to be gleaned from testing on public roads — and Honda does have an autonomous vehicle license from the state of California — but the development of a cooperative car society can only be achieved and demonstrated in a cooperative fashion. This requires … testing in very challenging scenarios in real-world environment, in safe and secure settings.”
That might mean simulating rare situations that happen on public roads, and it might include multiple automakers working together to make sure their vehicles can cooperate — without doing so in the presence of unsuspecting drivers. GoMentum Station is already attracting the attention of other companies interested in working in the space, such as the autonomous shuttle company EasyMile, and possibly ride-sharing services such as Lyft and Uber.
“We’re trying to find a better way of moving people,” Iwasaki said.
Ben Miller is the business beat staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.