Silicon Valley thinks it has the answer to everything. No wonder, then, that it also has the answer to the future of transportation.
“I don’t think there’s any better place to test self-driving cars than California,” says Randy Iwasaki. “You’ve got a rainforest in the north, the lowest and highest points in the continental US, heavily congested urban roadways and that low, empty highway running through Death Valley.”
But Iwasaki would say that. He’s the executive director of the Contra Costa Transportation Authority, owner of GoMentum Station. This 2,100-acre disused military base in Concord, near San Francisco, is already home to a fleet of experimental self-driving Hondas, and it is where Apple may also be considering testing intelligent vehicles.
Two and a half thousand miles away, Jim Sayer of the University of Michigan’s Mobility Transformation Center (MTC) disagrees. He sees his brand new 32-acre fake town, called Mcity, along with regional connected vehicle projects, as the future of self-driving car testing. “A unique combination of a purpose-built test environment and real-world deployments sets the university apart from other organizations … doing similar work,” he says.
A report in June by Lux Research estimates that self-driving cars will represent a $87bn market by 2030. Car makers and technology companies intent on reaping that bounty will have to develop, test and demonstrate new vehicles in controlled environments before letting them loose on public roads. And that means a high-tech windfall for locations that can accurately replicate the chaos of real streets without putting actual pedestrians or packed school buses at risk.
Mcity, which opened in July, has a bewildering variety of road surfaces, intersections, roundabouts and urban infrastructure packed on to its modest campus, even including buildings that can be moved. Mcity will be wired for the latest wireless vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technologies to allow city planners to dynamically adjust traffic flow and cars to “see” each other around corners.
Iwasaki, however, touts GoMentum Station’s vintage charm as a benefit. “At our site, the railroad tracks are actually in the ground. There are real tunnels where you’re going to lose your GPS signal,” he says. “If you’re building a brand new facility, are you going to be able to mimic the faded road striping that occurs in Seattle or in Iowa?”
Similarly, both sites see their climates as an advantage. Michigan experiences the full range of climatic conditions that cars will meet on real roads, from blizzards to heat waves. But California enjoys mild, sunny weather that enables companies to test year-round rather than having to break out snow shovels every day during the winter.
Both facilities claim to have a broad range of interested parties, with a distinct regional bias. Mcity, near Detroit, boasts investments from, among others, Ford, General Motors, Delphi and Toyota. GoMentum Station, with Silicon Valley on its doorstep, has had interest from Apple, Google and Tesla Motors, as well as the local R&D divisions of Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and Nissan.
Ultimately, though, even the thousands of acres available for testing at GoMentum Station might not provide enough elbow room for rivals intent on winning the race to develop a commercial self-driving car. As an Apple engineer wrote tactfully to GoMentum Station executives in May: “We would … like to get an understanding of timing and availability for the space, and how we would need to coordinate around other parties who would be using the space.”
There will soon be other places to test self-driving cars: another fake town in rural Florida and dedicated roads in northern Virginia, for instance. But perhaps the best solution for secretive car makers with the deepest pockets would be to copy Google and simply buy their own model community.
In 2014, Google leased 60 acres of an old air force base in Castle, California. There, engineers ran such unorthodox safety tests as throwing sheets of paper or beach balls at prototypes, or having someone suddenly jump out of a canvas bag in the middle of the road. Even the most serious robot test driver, it seems, needs to know what fun looks like, too.