Google Transforms Army Training Base Into Self-Driving Test Course

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May. 18 2019, Updated 8:51 a.m. ET

The University of Michigan isn’t the only place that’s developing and studying electric vehicles in a fake city. Waymo, a self-driving technology company under Google, has created the city of Castle in California. They’ve implemented an infrastructure that will fully test self-driving vehicles in hopes to share this innovation with people on a large scale.

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Why "Castle," you might be wondering? Interestingly, Castle was created from an old army training facility from World War II, formerly known as the Castle Air Force Base. The course will be equipped with objects that will make it seem like strolling around a typical town. So for example, there will be traffic cones, standing dummies, plastic plants, and objects like bicycles all over the place. Waymo’s goal is to rigorously test the automation without needing to disrupt the flow of real traffic.

It’s an upgrade from where the process of testing self-driving vehicles used to take place, which was in parking lots. Steph Villegas, one of the team members behind Google’s autonomy program since 2011, set up props in controlled environments. In a feature with The Atlantic, Villegas explained the difficulties of using the Shoreline Amphitheater and wanted to recreate a city.

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“We made conscious decisions in designing to make residential streets, expressway-style streets, cul-de-sacs, parking lots, things like that,” Steph Villegas said in a feature with The Atlantic. “So we’d have a representative concentration of features that we could drive around.”

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The fake city exploits many issues that Waymo has run into with self-driving cars, such as two-lane roundabouts in Texas. Without the disruption of others, researchers are able to repeatedly test out what the vehicle’s reactions are and have time to write down their observations.

Another benefit is using Carcraft, a simulation experience for autonomous vehicles to explore other cities like Austin and Phoenix. It again provides difficult situations for the vehicles, but adds virtual people, cars, and bikes on the road. According to Ars Technica, instead of performing tests physically, Waymo’s simulator has the ability to simulate tough situations “thousands of times in a single day.”

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Essentially, the autonomous vehicle will be able to get many more miles in than it ever could physically with the virtual world. Waymo can essentially skip over boring stuff and get right into the heart of these obstacles to clear. According to the company, 25,000 cars could be driving in the program, "learning from complex and interesting scenarios."

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“That iteration cycle is tremendously important to us and all the work we’ve done on simulation allows us to shrink it dramatically,” Dmitri Dolgov, Vice President of Engineering at Waymo, told The Atlantic. “The cycle that would take us weeks in the early days of the program now is on the order of minutes.”

Castle will be similar to Mcity, another 32-acre fake city used for testing self-driving features in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Recently, Domino’s Pizza and the Ford Motor Company will be "testing self-driving” in a limited area. No, the delivery vehicles won’t be driving themselves, but they’ll be evaluating the customer reaction toward it.

Waymo is well ahead of the curve in Level 4 autonomy. These new testing facilities will provide a better, more efficient way to enter this new technology into the market.

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