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California County Welcomes Autonomous Vehicle Testing

In a unanimous vote this week, Merced County supervisors finalized a long-awaited contract with the Transportation Research Center Inc., opening the door to the immediate testing of autonomous vehicles.

autonomous vehicle
Shutterstock/Just Super
(TNS) — In a unanimous and enthusiastic vote on Tuesday, the Merced County Board of Supervisors put the official stamp of approval on a contract that local officials say will put local autonomous vehicle testing "on the map for all the right reasons."

The move finalized a long-awaited contract with the Transportation Research Center Inc.. Effective immediately, TRC will begin taking over self-driving vehicle testing operations at the former Castle Air Force Base in Atwater.

"This has been a multiyear effort that has moved at an incredibly fast pace this past year, even despite challenges facing this county with COVID," Mark Hendrickson, Merced County director of community and economic development told the board Tuesday.

"(It) immediately will place you at the forefront of technology development and testing in California."

Dubbed the California AutoTech Testing and Development Center (CATDC), county officials have touted Castle's proximity to Silicon Valley and expansive open space as a boon for tech companies like Google that have used the facility to test self-driving vehicles for some years.

A combination of domestic and Europe and Asia-based companies conduct testing at the site, with day-to-day operations having been managed by the county.

But the long-term goal was to pass off management to a private third party expert that would put CATDC on the cutting edge of the developing autonomous vehicle industry.

The county commenced the search for a the right industry expert in October, ultimately settling on TRC as the best company for the job. The Ohio-based corporation operates the largest autonomous vehicle research and development testing facility in the U.S.

"It's the wave of the future, and we're going to be on the ground floor," said County Supervisor Scott Silveira.


TRC's 10 year contract with Merced County is anticipated to generate more than 130 new jobs within the first five years.

"Part of our mission is bringing in jobs, creating investment," said TRC President and Chief Executive Officer Brett Roubinek. "I believe this is the perfect place for this type of endeavor."

Hendrickson said the contract will create a pipeline for UC Merced and Merced College engineering students to put down professional roots locally. TRC will bring more diverse and high paying employment opportunities to Merced County, he said.

The company is in the process of hiring, development and construction, but full operations are expected to begin at Castle by July. The contract outlines a fixed rent schedule for TRC to operate a 225 acre site, ensuring a consistent revenue source for the county.

Discussions and debates over what do to with the former base have been trotted out ever since it closed in 1995 and the county took ownership of the almost 2,000 acres in 2006. Various ventures have cropped up at Castle since — some successful, some not.

"Castle has offered a lot of sleepless nights for me," said County Supervisor Daron McDaniel, whose district encompasses the former Air Force base in Atwater.

One of his first votes as a new supervisor in 2015 was deciding how to handle the future of Castle, McDaniel said.

Now on the cusp of bringing CATDC to the next level of the multi-billion dollar autonomous vehicle industry, county officials said the TRC Inc. contract is not just a win for Castle, but for all of Merced County.

©2021 the Merced Sun-Star, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.