It was uneventful when an eight-passenger, low-speed driverless shuttle crawled at about 10 mph (16 km/h) toward the intersection at the GoMentum Station AV proving grounds in Concord, Calif. The crisp October morning didn’t get anymore exciting when a mechanical pedestrian-dummy intentionally moved in the self-driving vehicle’s path. The shuttle’s six lidars, six radars and two military-grade GPS units brought the slow-moving vehicle gently to a stop within a courteous distance usually not granted by human drivers.
The demo was dull for the handful of journalists on hand. But Jay Rogers, the chief executive of Local Motors—the producer of the shuttle dubbed “Olli,”was bubbling with enthusiasm. Rogers believes that the potential for low-speed connected and autonomous shuttles outweighs the promise of conventional vehicles transformed into full-stack robo-taxis. “We’re trying to operate where 600 million trips are taking place daily in the United States, which is within a three-mile area at less than 30 miles an hour,” Rogers said. “That’s a lot of mobility.”
Before that mobility can be unleashed, Local Motors needs to ensure the safety of its shuttles, which have a maximum speed of 25 mph (40 kph). Autonomous shuttle accidents in Las Vegas and Vienna, respectively in 2017 and 2019, undermined confidence for low-speed people-movers. In those events, Local Motors vehicles were not involved.
The testing project at GoMentum Station, located 35 miles (56 km) northeast of San Francisco, is a three-way partnership between Local Motors, Contra Costa County’s transportation authority and AAA Northern California, which manages the facility. At 2,100 acres , GoMentum is the largest closed-course testing facility for connected and automated vehicles in the United States.
Everything is connected
The signalized intersection where the October demonstration took place looks humdrum. But it serves as one of five crossings that form GoMentum’s V2X lab. The vehicles on the closed course are instrumented with inertial measurement units and data loggers. There is more data-capturing gear in the dummy’s drive unit, which can also motivate an ersatz bicyclist and deer.
Multiple vendors provide the DSRC 5.9 HGz/5G roadside communications technology to ensure interoperability. The five V2X intersections on the sprawling campus – which includes overcrossings, tunnels, railroad tracks, and a mini-city – are connected to a control center, located in the nearby former fire station. The testing grounds, which were previously a naval weapons station, counts Baidu,, Lyft, Uber and Toyota as customers. A complete list is hard to obtain because much of the testing is private and confidential.
“We capture very precise range and speed information,” said Atul Acharya, director of autonomous vehicles strategy, AAA Northern California. “We get all the information through the data loggers, and then we perform analysis on the data to figure out vehicle acceleration-deceleration profiles and to calculate derived metrics such as time to collision and at what speed it was struck.”
Acharya explained that each test is conducted multiple times, at various speeds and with different road geometries and targets. The team documents when a pedestrian is detected and precisely where on the vehicle a collision occurs. “We share this performance data with Local Motors so they can make any necessary updates or changes,” Acharya said. GoMentum Station also provides help with AV simulation and experienced professional support for planning and executing testing strategies.
Go slow, to go fast
In AAA’s most recent survey on consumer perception of autonomous vehicles, 71% of American motorists reported being afraid of riding in an autonomous vehicle. But 53%of respondents were more comfortable with low-speed applications such as a shuttle or people-mover at airport, campus, or theme park. “The Olli shuttles by Local Motors could potentially be one of the first applications of autonomous technologies to be deployed and accepted by the public,” said Ignacio Garcia, vice-president of autonomous vehicles strategy, AAA Northern California.
Local Motors’ Rogers believes his company’s use of 3D printing will enable the mobility industry to speed up the timelines for producing, testing and iterating AV technology platforms –much faster than the auto industry’s conventional product cycles. About 30% of the content on first-generation Olli vehicles, like the ones being tested at GoMentum Station, are comprised of 3D-printed parts. The recently launched Ollie 2.0 will have 80% of its parts 3Dprinted.
“It means that you can develop a vehicle in six months, put somebody inside the vehicle, and it can have all new technology, all electric, all connected, all new visualization, AR, VR, other things like that,” said Rogers. “We as riders and consumers of vehicles should no longer accept the length of time that it takes to increment a vehicle and to put it into the public trust.”
Rogers sees AVs as an extension of the Internet of Things, put to use to increase productivity and reduce traffic congestion. That’s music to the ears of Randy Iwasaki, executive director of the Contra Costa Transportation Authority (CCTA). “We’re congestion firefighters,” said the self-proclaimed career-long transit bureaucrat. Iwasaki was the visionary who first proposed converting the grounds to an AV test facility in 2013. “The long-term vision is to create an autonomous-and-connected-vehicle Valley here and to center all the testing around creating 'smart' jobs,” he said.
GoMentum engineers also demonstrated “transit signal priority,” a V2X technology designed to create a freer flow of traffic. In the demo, a first vehicle not equipped with V2X was forced to wait for 25 seconds at a red light – even though no other cars were in sight. Then, a second vehicle approached – this one equipped with V2X communications – and the networked intersection switched the light to green. “With an application like a conditional transit priority, vehicles that carry more than 10 passengers, for example, can get a continuous green,” Kris Harikrishnan, director of autonomous vehicles strategy, AAA Northern California.
Iwasaki admitted that local leaders could be hesitant to approve innovative ideas. But he believes that new mobility technologies will begin to have a tangible positive impact on the county’s congestion within five years. He continues to push the envelope. His proposals include expanded use of autonomous shuttles at the county’s 9,000-resident Rossmoor retirement community; the lining of roads with fiber optic communications and the creation of a floating data barge to house (and water-cool) servers processing petabytes of transportation-based data.Continue reading »