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Testing Facility for Automated Vehicles Ready in Northern California

By Catherine A. Cardno, Ph.D.

A World War II-era naval weapons station in California is being transformed into a test facility for the most modern of transportation modes: automated vehicles.

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A decommissioned naval weapons station in Concord, California, will serve as a real-world test bed for vehicles fitted with the latest technology, including fully automated, driverless cars. The base features 20 mi of roadway a variety of alignments with intersections, driveways, and railroad crossings, plus bridges, tunnels, and underpasses. Contra Costa Transportation Authority

March 10, 2015—America's infrastructure is aging. President Obama knows it, ASCE knows it, and even John Oliver-host of the popular and provocative HBO news program Last Week Tonight-knows it. But what if aging U.S. infrastructure could be transformed so that it enabled the next generation of transportation options to be tested more fully, so that new technology could be released more quickly? 

That is exactly the situation that now faces an aged-and as of 2008, decommissioned-World War II-era naval weapons station in Concord, California. Located just 30 minutes from San Francisco and an hour from Sacramento, the former station is being transformed into a vast real-world testing facility for self-driving automated vehicles and so-called "connected" vehicles—those that are more conventional but that have been fitted with devices that enable them to communicate wirelessly with other vehicles, devices, and even infrastructure.

"Imagine a day when cars refuse to crash," suggests Randell Iwasaki, P.E., the executive director of the Contra Costa Transportation Authority (CCTA). "Imagine a day when the cars can follow [more closely] and you don't have to pay as much attention," he says. "Imagine you're a senior or disabled person and that you've lost your ability to drive, but you still want to go to the grocery store, you still want to go see a movie, you still want to go see your friends, or—more importantly—you need to go to the doctor's office."

Bringing those scenarios closer to reality is the goal of a new program that the CCTA is calling the "GoMentum Station." Located within the former Concord Naval Weapons Station, which served the nearby Port Chicago, the test facility will offer automobile manufacturers and other companies a fully functioning, yet mature, minicity in which to test the next-generation vehicles and associated technology.

The test bed that the former naval weapons station offers includes 20 mi of road and a small city in a secure environment located within more than 5,000 acres of fenced-in land. This provides the capability for the automated vehicle technology to be tested in a realistic environment without compromising public safety. The minicity comes complete with a variety of buildings; twin-bore, 1,400 ft long tunnels; bridges; underpasses; and roads that feature straight, curved, and inclined alignments as well as railroad crossings and intersections. Working curbs, gutters, sidewalks, guardrails, and fire hydrants are already in place, as well as sections of new and old asphalt and concrete roadways. A 7 mi long straight section of road can even be used for high-speed testing.

The age of the test facility is a large part of its appeal, as is the year-round good weather that that area typically experiences. "These buildings and roadways have been in existence for a while," notes Linsey Willis, the director of external affairs for the CCTA. "So, people are able to test in various real conditions and roadways." 

The CCTA is working with the U.S. Navy and the City of Concord to determine if slight alterations can be made to the existing facility, including the addition of temporary lighting, signals, and structures to house test vehicles and support equipment, according to Iwasaki. "Roadway work could include repaving, striping, temporary traffic device installations, and some realignment of the existing road or rail infrastructure already on the property to more closely replicate a real-world environment," he says. 

The naval weapons station is currently going through the base closure and realignment commission (BRAC) process and is being remediated so that it can be relinquished to the City of Concord, according to Iwasaki. The GoMentum test facility will be allowed to use the base while the city determines how best to develop the land for more permanent uses in the future. 

The facility has been fully mapped using a high-precision 3-D database, according to Jack Hall, P.E., the intelligent transportation system and connected vehicle program manager for the CCTA. "Detailed measurements of position, velocity, direction, orientation, comprehensive video data, and laser modeling of geographic features were all expertly recorded and processed," says Hall. 

Base maps for use by autonomous vehicles are now being developed from the information gathered, according Iwasaki. On-road testing will begin later this year.



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