ATWATER (KPIX 5) — An entire fake town has been erected on the site of an old Air Force base in the central valley, built by Googles autonomous vehicle company to test their self-driving cars.
While autonomous cars have become a fairly common sight on Bay Area roads, the town built by Google spinoff Waymo is taking the testing to a whole new level.
The company has transformed the former Castle Air Force Base in Atwater into a real-world training ground.
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The small town of Atwater, population 27,000, has a high-profile neighbor that was a secret, up until recently.
Waymo has built a 91-acre self-driving vehicle test track modeled after a small town, the largest in the country.
Waymo officially lifted the veil of secrecy with a big story in the Atlantic.
The company couldn’t accommodate a KPIX 5 request for a tour on such short notice, so we came down to the old Castle Air Force Base to see for ourselves.
The entire property is surrounded by a 7-foot fence with green mesh blocking the view.
But inside, Waymo has built an entire fake city, complete with curbs and sidewalks, stop signs, traffic lights, a railroad crossing and a turnabout.
Here, Waymo can run tests with their autonomous vehicles that would be difficult to do in Mountain View.
For example, KPIX 5 watched as engineers put the computer through its paces over and over again at a four-way stop sign.
The silver Prius would cut off the computer, and the computer slammed the brakes, avoiding a crash.
KPIX 5 cameras also caught a glimpse of this minivan covered in red X’s.
According to the Atlantic, these are Level 4 autonomous cars, meant to be driven without a human inside.
“We are very, very fortunate and lucky that Google showed up to Castle,” said Mark Hendrickson, the Director of Economic Development for Merced County. But now we are starting to see interest from other parties as well.
There is plenty of room to grow at the Castle Commerce Center. In fact, Merced County has some big plans for expansion to try and attract more companies to move to the location. They say the land is cheap and it’s only two hours away from Silicon Valley in the counter-commute direction.
The county is offering an open invitation to any self-driving car companies or other high-tech businesses considering a new home in Northern California.
“We have a workforce that is growing and becoming more educated. We have, again, a lower cost of living. We’ve got ample space from which to grow,” said Hendrickson. “We don’t have some of the land-use constraints they’re experiencing in other regions of the state. So again, from a Valley-wide perspective, we believe were very well poised to meet the needs of industry in the future.”