Autonomous Vehicles Gain Momentum
By Cecily O’Connor
Excitement is building about fully autonomous vehicles — cars and trucks that detect surroundings and run without a human behind the wheel. This holds especially true in the Bay Area, where one local testing site is going full throttle to help change the way people will eventually travel and move goods and services.
GoMentum Station, located at the former Concord Naval Weapons Station, is one of ten U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) “proving grounds” for autonomous vehicles. Led by the Contra Costa Transportation Authority (CCTA), GoMentum Station is an incubator that partners with automakers like Honda and countries such as the Netherlands, as well as with auto suppliers, tech companies, and public agencies to develop self-driving technologies. It was officially launched in 2015.
They’re testing connected vehicle applications that enable cars to talk with each other and the road, as well as technologies that make it possible for cars to operate safely through radar, lidar, sensors, cameras, GPS, and a mix of hardware and software working together.
The station fits with the Bay Area’s creative culture, and comes at a time when autonomous vehicle projects are being developed in the region’s public and private sectors, from ride-hailing company Lyft to the Livermore Amador Valley Transit Authority (LAVTA).
Many experts anticipate an eventual global shift to self-driving vehicles that will be transformative. Autonomous cars, trucks, and buses will help cities meet transportation demands while decreasing traffic and pollution, preventing injuries, and helping save lives. More than 30,000 Americans die each year due to vehicle-related crashes.
Despite the promise of safety, the technology is so new that most people wonder, “Why would I give up driving my car?” A Gartner survey released in August found 55 percent of respondents would not consider riding in a fully autonomous vehicle. Top concerns included equipment failure, system security, and the possibility that vehicles might be confused by unexpected situations.
Randy Iwasaki, CCTA’s executive director, said uncertainty is “natural” and he’s optimistic attitudes will change — especially in the Bay Area, as people realize the nation’s largest secure testing facility for this kind of technology is in their backyard.
GoMentum Station is “30 miles north of Silicon Valley, where every auto manufacturer has a research center,” Iwasaki said.
Driving in Circuits
GoMentum Station has 20 miles of paved roads, both curved and straight, many delineated by worn-out lines and weeds between cracks. Landmarks unique to the old weapons station include “Bunker City,” a grid of more than 100 old bunkers, and an old “mini city” inhabited by the base exchange, gym, barracks, and mess hall. There also are twin 1,400-foot-long tunnels under State Route 4 where GPS signals are often lost. Other features include bridges, buildings, curb gutters, and sidewalks, as well as parking lots with space for skid testing to gauge performance.
Yet for all of its capacity, Iwasaki explained that “on a typical day, we see nothing” at GoMentum Station. Three companies are testing at any given time, while much development and refinement is occurring behind closed doors.
“Every now and again, you’ll see trucks going back and forth, or Honda in Bunker City driving in circuits, testing their vehicle-to-infrastructure technology,” Iwasaki said.
CCTA’s Inside Track
How autonomous vehicles handle GoMentum Station’s true street conditions tips off planners and policymakers about infrastructure changes that will be vital to supporting this technology. Clearly marked roads, for example, will be a necessity for cities going forward, Iwasaki said.
CCTA is keenly aware of safe deployment requirements because it’s testing autonomous vehicles itself, as part of a partnership with French-based shuttle maker EasyMile. It got the green light when Assembly Bill 1592 (Bonilla) was signed in 2016. The “EZ10” shuttles, which run without steering wheels, brake pedals, or a human driver, are now being tested at San Ramon’s Bishop Ranch business park after initial run-throughs at GoMentum Station.
A similar measure, Assembly Bill 1444 (Baker), would clear the way for LAVTA to test driverless shuttles in Dublin with an eye toward providing first-and-last-mile connections to its rapid transit buses and to BART. LAVTA’s project will build on CCTA and its partners’ success, and contribute to more industry advancements, said Michael Tree, LAVTA’s executive director, in an email statement.
“Anticipating that the Governor will sign AB 1444 in the near future, LAVTA hopes to begin testing SAVs” — shared autonomous vehicles — “on public roadways in the spring of 2018,” Tree wrote on September 10.
Charting a Partner Course
Partnerships are the bread and butter of GoMentum Station, which receives two to three inquiry calls a week. Being a DOT proving ground “helps us attract companies that want to deploy their technology in Contra Costa County,” Iwasaki said.
Recently announced deals speak to the range of testing opportunities. For example, this summer GoMentum Station unveiled a partnership with the Netherlands’ Coast-to-Coast e-Mobility program, a collaboration between the U.S. and Dutch governments, universities, and private companies. The partners have agreed to share information and conduct testing at the Concord site for Amber, a Dutch autonomous car-sharing startup. They also will look for opportunities for GoMentum Station to launch projects in the Netherlands.
More partnerships are to come, including agreements with a roadside equipment company, an insurance corporation, and two auto manufacturers, Iwasaki said. A data analysis collaboration with a university also is likely.
The non-profit GoMentum Station relies on state funding and was recently dealt $3.5 million to support this growth. Its partners also pay undisclosed amounts to test at the site.
Autonomous Vehicle Outcomes
The potential of these technology partnerships is improved safety by reducing human error. Humans are a factor in 90 percent of motor vehicle crashes, due to speeding and drunk or distracted driving. Fully autonomous vehicles that can see more and respond faster than humans could curb the incidence of crashes.
“By eliminating the driver from the vehicle, we have the potential to make roads 90 percent safer,” said Lauren Isaac, director of business initiatives for the North American operation of EasyMile.
There are a myriad of other benefits, too, including better mobility for the disabled and the elderly, reduced pollution, and even smarter land usage when fewer parking lots are necessary.
Labor market outcomes, on the other hand, are getting mixed reactions. For example, “on-the-job” drivers that trek to work sites for construction or home care are likely to benefit from greater productivity and better working conditions offered by autonomous vehicles, according to a U.S. Commerce Department report from August. However, the same report noted that “motor vehicle operators” — who represented 3.8 million jobs in the transportation and warehousing sectors in 2015 — could stand to lose employment.
Bill Aboudi, president of AB Trucking at the Port of Oakland, said there are too many “variables” to remove a driver entirely, especially at the port, where they are essential to perform technical duties like hooking up chassis and landing gear.
“The technology is moving fast, but no way can you replace a human,” Aboudi said.
However, this is all speculative until fully autonomous vehicles are brought to market, an event at least several years away. Audi plans to debut its first autonomous car in 2020. Ford will have a fully autonomous vehicle in commercial operation by 2021. It’s unclear whether those dates reflect partial or full automation, and if the vehicles will truly be available to the general public.
To become fully autonomous, vehicles must progress through five levels of automation, as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers. Most cars today are at level zero or one. Some new models are equipped with automated assistance technologies like blind-spot detection, a level-one feature. Level five is considered full automation, or the “full-time performance” of all driving tasks by an automated system.
EasyMile’s Isaac said she used to show a 30-year graphic about autonomous vehicle arrivals during presentations. She’s since changed her approach because dates and automaker hype is frequently shifting.
“It’s to the point now that I have taken out that slide and put a big question mark over it,” said Isaac.
One hitch on the road to developing autonomous vehicles is regulation. State laws — California is one of 21 states that have passed relevant legislation — enacted in recent years have created a patchwork of self-driving regulations that’s hard to navigate. To help address this, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the SELF DRIVE (Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research In Vehicle Evolution) Act in early September, putting the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in charge of crafting rules for autonomous vehicle technology and safety, and clarifying state regulatory roles.
Not long after, the DOT provided new guidelines for companies developing self-driving cars in a September report called “Vision for Safety 2.0.”
‘Not a Jetsons Idea’
While policymaking is ongoing, residents should be catching glimpses of autonomous vehicle development throughout the region. San Francisco-based Lyft said in September it’s launching a pilot fleet of self-driving cars. Caltrans, meanwhile, is installing short-range radio communication equipment for transmissions between cars, traffic lights, and other traffic systems on a stretch of El Camino Real in Palo Alto. Further south, Mineta San Jose International Airport is exploring ways to move passengers and employees within parking lots and between terminals following a demonstration in August.
For residents to truly understand the technology, however, it needs to be pervasive “so it’s not a Jetsons idea — it’s actually a reality,” Isaac said.
To that end, GoMentum Station officials hope autonomous vehicle testing will have a permanent home in Concord, contributing to local growth as major redevelopment of the former Naval facility takes shape.
GoMentum Station has been operating at the site thanks to an annual license from the Navy, but the Navy is gradually transferring land to the City of Concord for transformation into housing and commercial space. The East Bay Regional Park District will also receive land to create a large regional park.
GoMentum Station officials are working with the City of Concord on a “longer-term or permanent” agreement to continue autonomous vehicle testing as the site develops, said Jack Hall, the program manager for the station, in an email.
Some land will be initially transferred late next year, based on the Concord Reuse Project Area Plan.
The property transfer “should be beneficial to GoMentum Station by allowing both agencies to make their own use decisions concerning [autonomous and connected vehicle] testing without needing approval from the Navy,” Hall wrote. “The Navy has been great to work with, but it is another layer of approval needed.”
According to Guy Bjerke, the city’s director of community reuse planning, Concord is supportive of “trying to figure out if there is a spot on the base for a permanent testing facility,” although the answer to that question remains “unknown at this time.”
Cecily O’Connor covers transportation for the Monitor.