Madeline Shannon, Merced Sun-Star I govtech
Merced County leaders say the $2.1 million expansion of the self-driving car testing site is now complete after months of construction — signaling the next chapter in the county's quest to attract the AV industry.
(TNS) — Merced County leaders say the $2.1 million expansion of the self-driving car testing site at Castle Commerce Center is now complete after months of construction — signaling the next chapter in the county's quest to attract the autonomous vehicle industry.
Officials say expansion of the TRC California complex in Atwater creates an environment for vehicle manufacturers and suppliers to test-drive vehicles in a setting that's similar to urban, rural and highway landscapes.
Among the expansion's highlights, the testing grounds include a 2.2-mile oval test track, a mile-long city course and two large vehicle dynamics areas.
"The $2.1 million was specifically for development and design, the construction of the oval, as well as some of the internal urban grid features — stoplights, intersections, etc," explained Mark Hendrickson, Merced County's community and economic development director.
Securing Merced County's future as an autonomous vehicle testing hub was further cemented in February when the Board of Supervisors approved its contract with Transportation Research Center, Inc., which took over autonomous vehicle testing at the Castle Commerce Center this year.
While it may take some time before the average American family owns a fully self-driving vehicle, every major car manufacturer and numerous startups globally have already invested millions in research, as Forbes and other publications have reported.
Plus, experts say the autonomous vehicle industry's growth potential is significant, with a global market size already projected in the tens of billions of dollars.
Will the expansion of the TRC California complex mean Merced County will cut a slice of that economic pie — particularly in terms of drawing businesses and industry stakeholders to the region? And have any big players in the automotive industry signed up to test vehicles at the Atwater site?
The answers to those questions are still unknown, at least to the public. While Merced County officials have said there are companies under contract to test at the site, they won't say who those entities are because of the proprietary nature of the products being developed and tested there.
The only company county officials would confirm is actively testing autonomous vehicles at the Castle Commerce Center is Waymo, which is owned by Google. Waymo still leases and maintains 113 acres of Castle Commerce land, and that's separate from TRC.
Local officials said the Atwater location is also ideal for technology companies because its just a few hours away from Silicon Valley.
"There's a lack of testing facilities in California," said Mark Mimms, deputy economic development director for Merced County. "TRC as a whole already does have a large impact on the automotive industry and that's going to help boost the economy as a whole in Merced County."
Self-driving cars at Castle
Testing at the TRC site is just the latest step in efforts to push Merced County to be a key destination for autonomous vehicle research.
Google, under the name LRC Engineering, signed a lease agreement with Merced County in 2014 to use 60 acres of land at the former Castle Air Force Base.
The leased space was meant to be developed into a closed track for testing self-driving vehicles. An additional 310 acres of space called the California AutoTech Testing and Development Center opened after a $6.5 million grant from the California State Transportation Agency to open just such a testing facility.
"We are actively working with new manufacturers and those in the technology space who have a desire to grow and expand operations in the western United States, so we are working incredibly hard to highlight Merced County," Hendrickson said.
"We routinely are trying to position Merced County and each of our six cities as the go-to place to do business in California. There's a lot of good things taking place in this area."
A primary goal of the deal county officials approved earlier this year was to eventually stimulate numerous and high-paying jobs.
County officials haven't pointed to the exact number of jobs related to autonomous vehicle testing created so far. Hendrickson does expect the number of jobs created to pick up in the near future as hiring efforts continue.
"It's their intention to hire as many local folks as possible," Hendrickson said of the companies testing at TRC.
"It's our hope, on any project, that those jobs will be of benefit to residents of Merced County. They're working to hire as many local folks as they possibly can as part of this project."