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Inside Honda's ghost town for testing autonomous cars

Engadget Engadget 2/06/2016 Roberto Baldwin

© Provided by Engadget

On the edge of the San Francisco suburb of Concord, California sits a ghost town. Dilapidated buildings and cracked roads are framed by overgrowth and slightly askew street signs. The decommissioned five acre portion of the Concord Naval Weapons Station that once housed military personnel and their families is now home to squirrels, jack rabbits, wild turkeys and Honda's mysterious testing lab for autonomous vehicles.

This former town within a Naval base -- now dubbed "GoMentum Station" -- works to Honda's advantage. It's a nearly turn-key solution to the problem of finding somewhere to test an autonomous vehicle inside an urban area. The automaker has access to 20 miles of various road types, intersections and the infrastructure it would encounter in the real world. Just, you know, without all the people getting in the way. While the faded lane markers and cracked asphalt might make it difficult for the car to figure out what's going on around it, that's exactly what you want when training a self-driving system.

Many roads in the real world are in dire need of upkeep. Just because autonomous vehicles are hitting the streets doesn't mean the funding needed to fix all the potholes and faded lane markers will magically appear. The real world doesn't work that way and the robot cars that will eventually make our commutes less of a headache will need to be aware of that. Plus, it's tougher to train a car to drive downtown than to barrel down the highway at 80 miles per hour. A company is going to want to get as much practice as possible.

While semi-autonomous driving on the everyone-going-the-same-way-at-a-constant-speed freeway driving is already a reality, navigating in an urban environment is far more complex. If you've driven on the streets of Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Chicago or Seattle you know that driving downtown takes far more concentration than cruising down the interstate.

With all that in mind, Honda's tricked out Acura RLX did a good job during its very controlled hands-free demo. It didn't hit either of the pedestrians walking across its path. It stopped at stop signs and even maneuvered around a mannequin situated in the middle of the road.

The reality is that watching a car drive around the block and not run into stuff is boring. Plus, Google has been doing this for a while in the real world. A few people joked that maybe someone should leap in front of the car to add some excitement. Honda didn't seem too keen to that idea.

But mundane is good. Boring driving is safe driving. Sure it was like watching an overly cautious driving instructor giving a lesson on how to avoid collisions. But, all the sensors, cameras, GPUs and development needed to keep the car from running into a pedestrian is insane.

Honda senior manager and chief engineer of research and development, Jim Keller said that the automaker has access to the facility for the foreseeable future. Part of the deal is that it has to take care of the upkeep. Eventually it'll paint new lines and add new signs. It's even going to create the driving conditions of European and Japanese roads. GoMentum Station will eventually go from quaint overgrown town to bustling car-testing min-metropolis as the company aims for a 2020 release of an autonomous car. Just don't tell the squirrels.

GoMentum Station

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