Inside Honda's ghost town for testing autonomous cars
This former town within a Naval base – now dubbed "GoMentum Station" – is the perfect testing ground for Honda's self-driving cars. An almost turn-key solution to the problem of finding somewhere to experiment with autonomous vehicle inside an urban area. Thanks to the GoMentum Station, the automaker has access to 20 miles of various road types, intersections and infrastructure exactly like those found in the real world. Just, you know, without all the people getting in the way. While the faded lane markers and cracked asphalt might initially 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 also 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 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 an (admittedly 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, watching a car drive around the block and safely avoid stuff is boring. Not to metion, 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, unsurprisingly, didn't seem too keen to that idea.
But, when it comes to autonomous cars, 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, then you remember, there is no human in control. All the sensors, cameras, GPUs and development needed to keep the car from running into a pedestrian is insane.
Honda's Chief Engineer of Research and Development, Jim Keller, said 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 mini-metropolis as the company aims for a 2020 release of an autonomous car. Just don't tell the squirrels.
This article by Roberto Baldwin originally ran on Engadget, the definitive guide to this connected life.
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