Business & Economy
11:16 am
Tue July 15, 2014

Google's Self-Driving Car And Others Use Merced As A Landing Pad

This is the first story in a two part series by Ezra David Romero about what some are calling a tech boom in Central California. This week we talk Merced, next we explore Fresno. 

Meet a guy who wakes up and spends his entire day with Google.

Daniel Galindo is a Google connoisseur. He says tech is second nature for him because technology has grown up with him.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

“I’m Daniel Galindo, I’m a student at the Merced JC,” Galindo says.

This 22-year-old won’t label himself as nerd or a techie; he doesn’t have a programming degree or write code.

“I use Google for research, for homework, class projects; also my phone is powered by Google as well as an android phone,” Galindo says.

He’s a millennial and he says that’s enough.

“So I use it anytime I use an app,” Galindo says.

That’s why when I asked him if he wanted to come with me to spy on a project Google is working on; he looked up from his phone.

“I think it’d be cool to see what they are doing in person,” Galindo says.

"Becoming a success in the future is thinking bigger, thinking brighter, it's thinking Google."

But Google’s super-secret. We asked Google for an interview, but they didn’t want to talk. A 6 foot tall chain link fence covered in green canvas hides what the tech company is testing at the historic Castle Air Force Base in Atwater now called Castle Commerce Center.

To the eye the cold war relic of a base looks dreary, weed ridden and sort of rundown. But carved out in pockets of the 2,700 acres of runway and office park are companies using surprisingly advanced technology.

We’ll start with Google and the driverless car.

“We’re here behind the fence basically at Google. What are you seeing?”

“There using the old parking lot around the dormitories with new stop lights put in to test these cars and we’ve been seeing a black car with one or two people talking into something driving around the track,” Galindosays.

He’s not the only one excited about Google’s presence in the Valley, Brendan Smith is a mechanical engineering PHD student at the UC Merced extension campus at Castle. He peers over Google’s fence daily.

“I was looking over the fence and you could see the Lexus autonomous vehicle with the Lidar unit on top which basically allows it see its surroundings and you could see the Prius crossing the intersection as the autonomous vehicle waited,” Smith says.

Smith is also in tech.

Brendan Smith loves drone technology. He moved to Merced from Los Angeles to attend UC Merced.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

He flies drones less than a thousand feet away from the autonomous car.  He’s part of a 40 man team at UC Merced building data drones. His PHD project is wrapped in a blue Styrofoam  and is called a water drone.  

“The mission right now is to collect water samples,” Smith says. “We can get a pretty good approximation of the number of species that are in the area and what type of species are in that area.”

But the driverless car and water collecting drones are only two things on a list of technological innovation at Castle. Giant cranes, prosthetic limbs, a robotics group and a balloon based internet system via Google’s Project Loon are just a few.

“I understand that there are also rockets being built here.”

“They’re right down the road,” Malta says.

“So down Amo Road?”

“Yeah,” Malta says. “We have a company called Ventions. They’re a San Francisco company and they make small rocket motors essentially for things like satellites and so forth.”

That’s Scott Malta the airport manager at Castle. He served at the base at 17, got married there and later became a flight instructor in the 80s. He remembers what life was like when the base was full of pilots and planes.

Scott Malta has a long history with Castle Air Force Base. Not only did he serve there, but his father did as well.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

“If you transform back to the Air Force days when money was kind of unlimited, man power was kind of unlimited you never saw grass and cracks and you never saw dry ground,” Malta says. “This place is a show place.”

The base shut down in 1995 and sat largely dormant until 2006 when Merced County bought it and began looking for renters.

I asked Mat Honan a senior writer with WIRED why such diverse tech companies are making their way to Merced County.

“Central California isn’t Mountain View or Silicon Valley. Why do you think tech would boom here?”

“It doesn’t have that population concentration that you’ve got in the bay area and to some extent companies like to test things in the United States because it’s cheaper,” Honan says. 

"That might stimulate things they are going to see outside Silicon Valley. If you’re trying to set something up just for Silicon Valley, just for Mountain View, just for San Francisco it’s not going to be relevant to a lot of people throughout the country and the world.”

And that’s exactly why Merced County leaders want to attract companies like Google to Castle.

“Becoming a success in the future is thinking bigger, thinking brighter, it’s thinking Google,” says Mark Hendrickson, the director of community and economic development for the county.

But until then Hendrickson and his team are on the prowl to attract other companies like Google to Merced County. 

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