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Mercedes to test autonomous cars at decommissioned weapons depot

Google Earth

 (Google Earth)

Mercedes-Benz already has an autonomous car capable of driving on highways, but now the German automaker is looking to conquer the urban jungle. Engineers needed a new facility to test self-driving cars in a city-like environment, so they found... a decommissioned weapons depot?

The automaker says the 20 miles of paved roads at California's Concord Naval Weapons Station make for the perfect testing environment. The base—used to store ammunition bound for the Pacific Theater during World War II—has been out of service since 2005, giving the automaker an isolated place to conduct tests.

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"We can use the test site in Concord, California, to run simulation tests with self-driving vehicles in a secure way, including specific hazardous situations", explained Dr Axel Gern, head of autonomous driving research for Mercedes in North America. "Taken in conjunction with the results of our test drives on public roads, these tests will help us with the ongoing development of our autonomous cars."

The Concord site's gridded roads, street signs, and buildings should be a good stand-in for a city, which is expected to be a tough challenge for self-driving cars. Unlike highway cruising, city driving involves more variables and more potential danger of collisions with pedestrians or other vehicles.

Mercedes—which has an R&D center in nearby Sunnyvale—will use the weapons depot to test automated systems' responses to those situations, believing it can get more realistic results than it would at a traditional automotive testing facility.

The company hasn't discussed what kinds of tests it will be running, or what vehicles it will use, but its self-driving S-Class prototype has already been demonstrated on public roads in Europe.

Since the base is also owned by the Federal government, Mercedes also doesn't have to worry about complying with California state laws governing the testing of autonomous cars on public roads.

Google has already found those rules too constricting. The tech giant is running tests at a NASA facility near its Mountain View campus so that its autonomous prototype can be driven without a steering wheel—which is required for public-road testing.