At first glance, the old naval weapons station in Concord looks like little more than a barren field. Brown, dead weeds and grass span almost 5,000 acres in every direction. The land is so nondescript, one would hardly guess that it has been Silicon Valley’s best-kept secret for years.
Since 2014, the space has quietly been ground zero for GoMentum Station, a testing arena for some of Silicon Valley’s most talked about self-driving cars. Uber-owned Otto, Mercedes-Benz, and Honda have all tested their new tech on the property, and documents have shown that Apple was in talks to check it out in 2015.
Now, California lawmakers are hoping to lure more big-name brands to with the help of Assemblybill 1592. Signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Thursday, the legislation lifts a slew of restrictions overseeing the types of cars operating on the disused space.
Here’s what we know about the bill, and how it could affect Contra Costa County.
What the bill does:
AB1592 authorizes the Contra Costa Transportation Authority to test a pilot project allowing for cars without brakes, steering wheels and gas pedals to drive on GoMentum’s roads at speeds of up to 35 miles an hour.
What’s more, it nixes the requirement that all cars must have an operator inside, a precaution that Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, who introduced the bill, said it would be unnecessary given that the station is blocked off to the public.
“Paramount for everyone is safety,” Bonilla said in a phone interview with NBC Bay Area. “The worst thing for innovation would be is if we don’t proceed with consumer safety as our number one concern.”
According to the bill, private companies can take advantage of the lifted restrictions, provided they pony up proof of $5 million in self-insurance to the DMV, and, of course, shell out big bucks to GoMentum. For companies such as Honda, that costs a cool $250,000. Clearly, this is not a bill intended to help fledgling startups.
AB1592 is also narrow in scope: It only applies to machinery driving at GoMentum and is not meant to override DMV policy on public roads. So, don’t expect to see a driverless car pull up beside you on Concord Boulevard.
Why Companies Come to Concord:
For some, the high costs associated with the test space may be worth it: Barbed wire fences and a military presence still line the property, keeping the prying eyes of the public and competitors at bay.
There’s a reason that’s such a huge incentive: For tech-turned-car makers, testing beta products away from public scrutiny allows them to avoid a similar fate that befell Google in February, when the brand faced backlash after its self-driving Lexus tried to swerve around sandbags and smashed into a city bus. In short, it gives companies room to try new things, while also shielding them from possible criticism.
Perhaps the biggest draw, however, is the infrastructure remaining from the bygone era in which the site was a bustling naval base. Remnants include secluded roadways, highway overpasses, and roads that twist and turn.
Companies looking to test out their products without getting DMV approval for public roads might find driving at GoMentum to be a more convenient loophole.
“Specifically, we can simulate complicated conditions that are hard to come by on the highway, which is an incredibly valuable exercise,” a representative from Otto told NBC Bay Area. (When asked what that “value,” costs Otto, the representative had “no comment.”)
What, if anything, the site brings to Contra Costa:
For Concord residents hoping to see GoMentum’s tech-friendly presence pour money into the East Bay and raise its national profile, like Silicon Valley did for the South Bay, the reality may be disappointing. According to Willis and Bonilla, the money isn’t coming back to locals just yet.
“It goes into a fund, a separate fund, and the partners in GoMentum station determine how those dollars get spent on improvement or features for testing added to the base,” Willis said.
Still, Assemblywoman Bonilla is hopeful that it could mean big things for the future of Contra Costa County, a region of the Bay that has largely escaped the tech boom happening in other parts of the coast.
“It had just been sitting there, completely unused, and it’s an incredible resource,” Bonilla said. "It's been really exciting to see what's happening to the space."
Aside from GoMentum, there is currently a reuse plan to develop the rest of the land that makes up the old weapons station.
Bonilla conceded that the economic benefit is still in the offing, describing the station as a potential magnet to attract other businesses. The hope, she said, is that companies who test at the site may want to have headquarters or factories nearby.
“If we’re able to attract not only the businesses that are going to come and test there, but other associated industries — the ones manufacturing — that’s going to be the real economic benefit.”
Gillian Edevane covers Contra Costa County for NBC Bay Area. Contact her at Gillian.Edevane@NBCUni.com.