Tech sector growing vibrantly throughout Central Valley

by Phillip Lan
August 23, 2017
The Central Valley Business Journal

Chances are, when you think of the Central Valley, you think about tomato trucks rumbling down the freeway or shakers knocking down almonds amidst endless rows of trees. You probably don’t think about modern tech companies or millennials working while sipping lattes in open, co-working spaces. But an ever-increasing group of local techies and entrepreneurs are working to change that.

Over the last few decades, the Central Valley’s tech community has been growing — slowly and under the radar. Local commuters working in Bay Area tech companies and tech-related professionals in Central Valley companies now number thousands across the region. Many software developers, often known as coders or hackers, have begun gathering at fun local events such as the Modesto-based Valley Hackathon (https://valleyhackathon.com/), a programming contest where Star Wars-costumed teams furiously write computer code to win thousands in cash and prizes.

Local business leaders who see the economic benefit tech jobs can bring to the region have also jumped in to accelerate the development of a tech community in the Central Valley. Launched several years ago, The Huddle is a co-working space in downtown Stockton which provides entrepreneurs a place to collaborate and create synergies to help each other’s companies grow. Tech startups in Sacramento now have communities like Hacker Lab where they can co-locate with other companies and get access to mentors and resources to improve revenue trajectory. In Fresno, Geekwise Academy has trained thousands of people to develop software over the past few years and its parent company, Bitwise Industries (http://bitwiseindustries.com/), has helped create over 1,000 tech-related jobs in the region. Bitwise now partners with Amazon to train developers on the latest platforms and eventually plans to occupy 2.5 million square feet of commercial space in downtown Fresno.

In Modesto, ValleyWorx, a tech and digital design co-working hub, will begin taking applications from tech companies and entrepreneurs later this month. One of its first tenants will be Bay Valley Tech (http://bayvalleytech.com/), a code academy focused on providing affordable hands-on software skills to working professionals and students preparing to enter the work force. Locating tech students and tech companies in the same building will allow students to more easily find internships and jobs. At the same time, companies based out of ValleyWorx will have access to an ever-expanding talent pool proficient in the latest technologies.

You may be wondering how all of these “geeks” are going to help the rest of our non-tech economy. By creating a thriving tech community in the Central Valley, we will make it a more attractive place for software professionals to settle.

Senior software engineers in California now earn an average salary of $129,000, and some make over $200,000 annually, according to Indeed.com. Not only will ‘hackers’ infuse disposable income into our local economy, their presence will attract Bay Area firms looking for tech talent.

For example, Oportun, a Redwood City-based venture-backed company, set up a software development office in downtown Modesto two years ago and is already outgrowing their space due to rapid hiring. Their executives indicated availability of software talent as a key driver for expanding into the Central Valley.

Other Bay Area companies are also considering expanding to Sacramento, Stockton and Modesto due to the availability of high-tech talent.

In order to continue the momentum and attract even more tech companies to the Central Valley, local businesses, non-profits and government entities are working to do the following:

  1. Create more events such as the Valley Hackathon, 59 Days of Code and Valley Software Developers Meetups in Modesto (https://www.meetup.com/Valley-Software-Developers/) and Stockton (https://www.meetup.com/Valley-Software-Developers-Stockton/) to pull the existing tech community together.
  2. Launch co-working spaces such as The Huddle and ValleyWorx to facilitate collaboration, mentoring and growth.
  3. Expand the Central Valley’s tech community by training thousands more local residents to become software literate through code academies such as Geekwise and Bay Valley Tech. Learning software development skills will help thousands of workers capitalize on upcoming transformative industries such as ag tech, manufacturing automation and self-driving transportation (which all heavily leverage software).

The creation of a growing tech-enabled workforce will make the Central Valley an attractive investment destination for Bay Area tech companies who are now overlooking this region and expanding out of state to cities such as Austin, Denver, Seattle and Portland.The Central Valley needs more high-paying jobs, local residents need a realistic path into software-related careers to prepare for the changing world and Bay Area tech workers need affordable housing.

According to a recent poll by the Bay Area Council, a staggering 46 percent of millennials (people age 18 to 39) living in the San Francisco Bay Area say they’re now ready to leave one of the nation’s most unaffordable housing markets. Many have already left California, expanding the tech talent pool in other states.

As high paying software job openings continue to outpace the supply of programmers in California, this is the perfect time for Central Valley leaders to come together and create a win-win-win solution. A tech ecosystem generating exciting, well-paying jobs will also encourage local students to participate in junior high, high school and college programming and robotics initiatives.

Jumpstarting a tech economy in our ag-focused Central Valley is undoubtedly a Herculean task requiring a community-wide effort. Here are a few opportunities for business and community leaders who would like to help:

  1. Sponsor Stockton’s upcoming Valley Hackathon in October (https://valleyhackathon.com/BecomeASponsor).
  2. Contribute to a code academy scholarship fund.
  3. Sign up as a corporate sponsor of the Bay Valley Tech code academies in Stockton and Modesto.

Inside Waymo’s Secret World for Training Self-Driving Cars


by ALEXIS C. MADRIGAL
The Atlantic

In a corner of Alphabet’s campus, there is a team working on a piece of software that may be the key to self-driving cars. No journalist has ever seen it in action until now. They call it Carcraft, after the popular game World of Warcraft.

The software’s creator, a shaggy-haired, baby-faced young engineer named James Stout, is sitting next to me in the headphones-on quiet of the open-plan office. On the screen is a virtual representation of a roundabout. To human eyes, it is not much to look at: a simple line drawing rendered onto a road-textured background. We see a self-driving Chrysler Pacifica at medium resolution and a simple wireframe box indicating the presence of another vehicle.

Months ago, a self-driving car team encountered a roundabout like this in Texas. The speed and complexity of the situation flummoxed the car, so they decided to build a look-alike strip of physical pavement at a test facility. And what I’m looking at is the third step in the learning process: the digitization of the real-world driving. Here, a single real-world driving maneuver—like one car cutting off the other on a roundabout—can be amplified into thousands of simulated scenarios that probe the edges of the car’s capabilities.
Scenarios like this form the base for the company’s powerful simulation apparatus. “The vast majority of work done—new feature work—is motivated by stuff seen in simulation,” Stout tells me. This is the tool that’s accelerated the development of autonomous vehicles at Waymo, which Alphabet (née Google) spun out of its “moon-shot” research wing, X, in December of 2016.If Waymo can deliver fully autonomous vehicles in the next few years, Carcraft should be remembered as a virtual world that had an outsized role in reshaping the actual world on which it is based.

Originally developed as a way to “play back” scenes that the cars experienced while driving on public roads, Carcraft, and simulation generally, have taken on an ever-larger role within the self-driving program.

At any time, there are now 25,000 virtual self-driving cars making their way through fully modeled versions of Austin, Mountain View, and Phoenix, as well as test-track scenarios. Waymo might simulate driving down a particularly tricky road hundreds of thousands of times in a single day. Collectively, they now drive 8 million miles per day in the virtual world. In 2016, they logged 2.5 billion virtual miles versus a little over 3 million miles by Google’s IRL self-driving cars that run on public roads. And crucially, the virtual miles focus on what Waymo people invariably call “interesting” miles in which they might learn something new. These are not boring highway commuter miles.

Waymo has never unveiled this system before. The miles they drive on regular roads show them areas where they need extra practice. They carve the spaces they need into the earth at Castle, which lets them run thousands of different scenarios in situ. And in both kinds of real-world testing, their cars capture enough data to create full digital recreations at any point in the future. In that virtual space, they can unhitch from the limits of real life and create thousands of variations of any single scenario, and then run a digital car through all of them. As the driving software improves, it’s downloaded back into the physical cars, which can drive more and harder miles, and the loop begins again.

To get to Castle, you drive east from San Francisco Bay and south on 99, the Central Valley highway that runs south to Fresno. Cornfields abut subdevelopments; the horizon disappears behind agricultural haze. It’s 30 degrees hotter than San Francisco and so flat that the grade of this “earthen sea,” as John McPhee called it, can only be measured with lasers. You exit near the small town of Atwater, once the home of the Castle Air Force Base, which used to employ 6,000 people to service the B-52 program. Now, it’s on the northern edge of the small Merced metro area, where unemployment broke 20 percent in the early 2010s, and still rarely dips below 10 percent. Forty percent of the people around here speak Spanish. We cross some railroad tracks and swing onto the 1,621 acres of the old base, which now hosts everything from Merced County Animal Control to the U.S. Penitentiary, Atwater.

The directions in my phone are not pointed to an address, but a set of GPS coordinates. We proceed along a tall opaque green fence until Google Maps tells us to stop. There’s nothing to indicate that there’s even a gate. It just looks like another section of fence, but my Waymo host is confident. And sure enough: A security guard appears and slips out a widening crack in the fence to check our credentials.

The fence parts and we drive into a bustling little campus. Young people in shorts and hats walk to and fro. There are portable buildings, domed garages, and—in the parking lot of the main building—self-driving cars. This is a place where there are several types of autonomous vehicle: the Lexus models that you’re most likely to see on public roads, the Priuses that they’ve retired, and the new Chrysler Pacifica minivans.

The self-driving cars are easy to pick out. They’re studded with sensors. The most prominent are the laser scanners (usually called LIDARs) on the tops of the cars. But the Pacificas also have smaller beer-can-sized LIDARs spinning near their side mirrors. And they have radars at the back which look disturbingly like white Shrek ears.

When a car’s sensors are engaged, even while parked, the spinning LIDARs make an odd sound. It’s somewhere between a whine and a whomp, unpleasant only because it’s so novel that my ears can’t filter it out like the rest of the car noises that I’ve grown up with.

There is one even more special car parked across the street from the main building. All over it, there are X’s of different sizes applied in red duct tape. That’s the Level Four car. The levels are Society of Automotive Engineers designations for the amount of autonomy that the car has. Most of what we hear about on the roads is Level One or Level Two, meant to allow for smart cruise control on highways. But the red-X car is a whole other animal. Not only is it fully autonomous, but it cannot be driven by the humans inside it, so they don’t want to get it mixed up with their other cars.As we pull into the parking lot, there are whiffs of Manhattan Project, of scientific outpost, of tech startup. Inside the main building, a classroom-sized portable, I meet the motive force behind this remarkable place. Her name is Steph Villegas.

Villegas wears a long, fitted white collared shirt, artfully torn jeans, and gray knit sneakers, every bit as fashionable as her pre-Google job at the San Francisco boutique Azalea might suggest. She grew up in the East Bay suburbs on the other side of the hills from Berkeley and was a fine-arts major at University of California, Berkeley before finding her way into the self-driving car program in 2011.

“You were a driver?” I ask.

“Always a driver,” Villegas says.

She spent countless hours going up and down 101 and 280, the highways that lead between San Francisco and Mountain View. Like the rest of the drivers, she came to develop a feel for how the cars performed on the open road. And this came to be seen as an important kind of knowledge within the self-driving program. They developed an intuition about what might be hard for the cars. “Doing some testing on newer software and having a bit of tenure on the team, I began to think about ways that we could potentially challenge the system,” she tells me.

So, Villegas and some engineers began to cook up and stage rare scenarios that might allow them to test new behaviors in a controlled way. They started to commandeer the parking lot across from Shoreline Amphitheater, stationing people at all the entrances to make sure only approved Googlers were there.

“That’s where it started,” she says. “It was me and a few drivers every week. We’d come up with a group of things that we wanted to test, get our supplies in a truck, and drive the truck down to the lot and run the tests.”These became the first structured tests in the self-driving program. It turns out that the hard part is not really the what-if-a-zombie-is-eating-a-person-in-the-road scenarios people dream up, but proceeding confidently and reliably like a human driver within the endless variation of normal traffic.

Villegas started gathering props from wherever she could find them: dummies, cones, fake plants, kids’ toys, skateboards, tricycles, dolls, balls, doodads. All of them went into the prop stash. (Eventually, the props were stored in a tent, and now at Castle, in a whole storage unit.)

But there were problems. They wanted to drive faster and use streetlights and stop signs. And the concert season at Shoreline Amphitheater regularly threw kinks in their plans. “It was like, ‘Well, Metallica is coming, so we’re gonna have to hit the road,’” she says.

They needed a base, a secret base. And that’s what Castle provided. They signed a lease and started to build out their dream fake city. “We made conscious decisions in designing to make residential streets, expressway-style streets, cul-de-sacs, parking lots, things like that,” she says, “so we’d have a representative concentration of features that we could drive around.”

We pass by a cluster of pinkish buildings, the old military dormitories, one of which has been renovated: That’s where the Waymo people sleep when they can’t make it back to the Bay. Other than that, there are no buildings in the testing area. It is truly a city for robotic cars: All that matters is what’s on and directly abutting the asphalt.

As a human, it feels like a video-game level without the non-player characters. It’s uncanny to pass from boulevards to neighborhood-ish streets with cement driveways to suburban intersections, minus the buildings we associate with these places. I keep catching glimpses of roads I feel like I’ve traveled.

We pull up to a large, two-lane roundabout. In the center, there is a circle of white fencing. “This roundabout was specifically installed after we experienced a multilane roundabout in Austin, Texas,” Villegas says. “We initially had a single-lane roundabout and were like, ‘Oh, we’ve got it. We’ve got it covered.’ And then we encountered a multi-lane and were like, ‘Horse of a different color! Thanks, Texas.’ So, we installed this bad boy.”

We stop as Villegas gazes at one piece of the new addition: Two car lanes and a bike lane run past parallel parking abutting a grass patch. “I was really keen on installing something with parallel parking along it. Something like this happens in suburban downtowns. Walnut Creek. Mountain View. Palo Alto,” she says. “People are coming out of storefronts or a park. People are walking between cars, maybe crossing the street carrying stuff.” The lane was like a shard of her own memory that she’s embedded in the earth in asphalt and concrete, which will make its way into a more abstract form, an improved ability for a robot to handle her home terrain.
She drives me back to the main office and we hop into a self-driving van, one of the Chrysler Pacificas. Our “left-seat” driver is Brandon Cain. His “right-seat” co-driver in the passenger seat will track the car’s performance on a laptop using software called XView.And then there are the test assistants, who they call “foxes,” a sobriquet that evolved from the word “faux.” They drive cars, create traffic, act as pedestrians, ride bikes, hold stop signs. They are actors, more or less, whose audience is the car.

The first test we’re gonna do is a “simple pass and cut-in,” but at high speed, which in this context means 45 miles per hour. We set up going straight on a wide road they call Autobahn.

After the fox cuts us off, the Waymo car will brake and the team will check a key data point: our deceleration. They are trying to generate scenarios that cause the car to have to brake hard. How hard? Somewhere between a “rats, not gonna make the light” hard stop and “my armpits started involuntarily sweating and my phone flew onto the floor” really hard stop.

Let me say something ridiculous: This is not my first trip in a self-driving vehicle. In the past, I’ve taken two different autonomous rides: first, in one of the Lexus SUVs, which drove me through the streets of Mountain View, and second, in Google’s cute little Firefly, which bopped around the roof of a Google building. They were both unremarkable rides, which was the point.

But, this is different. These are two fast-moving cars, one of which is supposed to cut us off with a move that will be, to use the Waymo term of art, “spicy.”It’s time to go. Cain gets us moving and with a little chime, the car says, “Autodriving.” The other car approaches and cuts us off like a Porsche driver trying to beat us to an exit. We brake hard and fast and smooth. I’m impressed.

Then they check the deceleration numbers and realize that we had not braked nearly hard enough. We have to do it again. And again. And again. The other car cuts us off at different angles and with different approaches. They call this getting “coverage.”

Two cars merging at high speed, one driving itself (Alexis Madrigal)

We go through three other tests: high-speed merges, encountering a car that’s backing out of a driveway while a third blocks the autonomous vehicle’s view, and smoothly rolling to a stop when pedestrians toss a basketball into our path. Each is impressive in its own way, but that cut-off test is the one that sticks with me.

As we line up for another run, Cain shifts in his seat. “Have you ever seen Pacific Rim?” Cain asks me. You know the Guillermo del Toro movie where the guys get synced up with huge robot suits to battle monsters. “I’m trying to get in sync with the car. We share some thoughts.”

I ask Cain to explain what he actually means by syncing with the car. “I’m trying to adjust to the weight difference of people in the car,” he says. “Being in the car a lot, I can feel what the car is doing—it sounds weird, but—with my butt. I kinda know what it wants to do.”

Far from the haze and heat of Castle, there is Google’s comfy headquarters in Mountain View. I’ve come to visit Waymo’s engineers, who are technically housed inside X, which you may know as Google X, the long-term, high-risk research wing of the company. In 2015, when Google restructured itself into a conglomerate called Alphabet, X dropped the Google from its name (their website is literally X.company). A year after the big restructuring, X/Alphabet decided to “graduate” the autonomous vehicle program into its own company as it had done with several other projects before, and that company is Waymo. Waymo is like Google’s child, once removed, or something.

So, Waymo’s offices are still inside the mother ship, though, like two cliques slowly sorting themselves out, the Waymo people all sit together now, I’m told.

The X/Waymo building is large and airy. There are prototypes of Project Wing’s flying drones hanging around. I catch a bit of the cute little Firefly car the company built. (“There’s something sweet about something you build yourself,” Villegas had said back at Castle. “But they had no A/C, so I don’t miss them.”)

Up from the cafeteria, tucked in a corner of a wing, is the Waymo simulation cluster. Here, everyone seems to have Carcraft and XView on their screens. Polygons on black backgrounds abound. These are the people creating the virtual worlds that Waymo’s cars drive through.

What it looked like to a Waymo car’s laser scanner when four people were pushing a car (Waymo)

Waiting for me is James Stout, Carcraft’s creator. He’s never gotten to speak publicly about his project and his enthusiasm spills out. Carcraft is his child.

“I was just browsing through job posts and I saw that the self-driving car team was hiring,” he says. “I couldn’t believe that they just had a job posting up.” He got on the team and immediately started building the tool that now powers 8 million virtual miles per day.Back then, they primarily used the tool to see what their cars would have done in tricky situations in which human drivers have taken over control of the car. And they started making scenarios from these moments. “It quickly became clear that this was a really useful thing and we could build a lot out of this,” Stout says. The spatial extent of Carcraft’s capabilities grew to include whole cities, the number of cars grew into a huge virtual fleet.

Stout brings in Elena Kolarov, the head of what they call their “scenario maintenance” team to run the controls. She’s got two screens in front of her. On the right, she has up XView, the screen that shows what the car is “seeing.” The car uses cameras, radar, and laser scanning to identify objects in its field of view—and it represents them in the software as little wireframe shapes, outlines of the real world.

Green lines run out from the shapes to show the possible ways the car anticipates the objects could move. At the bottom, there is an image strip that displays what the regular (i.e., visible-light) cameras on the car captured. Kolarov can also turn on the data returned by the laser scanner (LIDAR), which is displayed in orange and purple points.

We see a playback of a real merge on the roundabout at Castle. Kolarov switches into a simulated version. It looks the same, but it’s no longer a data log but a new situation the car has to solve. The only difference is that at the top of the XView screen it says “Simulation” in big red letters. Stout says that they had to add that in because people were confusing simulation for reality.

They load up another scenario. This one is in Phoenix. Kolarov zooms out to show the model they have of the city. For the whole place, they’ve got “where all the lanes are, which lanes lead into other lanes, where stop signs are, where traffic lights are, where curbs are, where the center of the lane is, sort of everything you need to know,” Stout says.
We zoom back in on a single four-way stop somewhere near Phoenix. Then Kolarov starts dropping in synthetic cars and pedestrians and cyclists.
With a hot key press, the objects on the screen begin to move. Cars act like cars, driving in their lanes, turning. Cyclists act like cyclists. Their logic has been modeled from the millions of miles of public-road driving the team has done. Underneath it all, there is that hyper-detailed map of the world and models for the physics of the different agents in the scene. They have modeled both the rubber and the road.
Not surprisingly, the hardest thing to simulate is the behavior of the other people. It’s like the old parental saw: “I’m not worried about you driving. I’m worried about the other people on the road.”
“Our cars see the world. They understand the world. And then for anything that is a dynamic actor in the environment—a car, a pedestrian, a cyclist, a motorcycle—our cars understand intent. It’s not enough to just track a thing through a space. You have to understand what it is doing,” Dmitri Dolgov, Waymo’s vice president of engineering, tells me. “This is a key problem in building a capable and safe self-driving car. And that sort of modeling, that sort of understanding of the behaviors of other participants in the world, is very similar to this task of modeling them in simulation.”There is one key difference: In the real world, they have to take in fresh, real-time data about the environment and convert it into an understanding of the scene, which they then navigate. But now, after years of work on the program, they feel confident that they can do that because they’ve run “a bunch of tests that show that we can recognize a wide variety of pedestrians,” Stout says.

So, for most simulations, they skip that object-recognition step. Instead of feeding the car raw data it has to identify as a pedestrian, they simply tell the car: A pedestrian is here.

At the four-way stop, Kolarov is making things harder for the self-driving car. She hits V, a hot key for vehicle, and a new object appears in Carcraft. Then she mouses over to a drop-down menu on the righthand side, which has a bunch of different vehicle types, including my favorite: bird_squirrel.

The different objects can be told to follow the logic Waymo has modeled for them or the Carcraft scenario builder can program them to move in a precise way, in order to test specific behaviors. “There’s a nice spectrum between having control of a scenario and just dropping stuff in and letting them go,” Stout says.Once they have the basic structure of a scenario, they can test all the important variations it contains. So, imagine, for a four-way stop, you might want to test the arrival times of the various cars and pedestrians and bicyclists, how long they stop for, how fast they are moving, and whatever else. They simply put in reasonable ranges for those values and then the software creates and runs all the combinations of those scenarios.

They call it “fuzzing,” and in this case, there are 800 scenarios generated by this four-way stop. It creates a beautiful, lacy chart—and engineers can go in and see how different combinations of variables change the path that the car would decide to take.

The problem really becomes analyzing all these scenarios and simulations to find the interesting data that can guide engineers to be able to drive better. The first step might just be: Does the car get stuck? If it does, that’s an interesting scenario to work on.

Here we see a video that shows exactly such a situation. It’s a complex four-way stop that occurred in real life in Mountain View. As the car went to make a left, a bicycle approached, causing the car to stop in the road. Engineers took that class of problem and reworked the software to yield correctly. What the video shows is the real situation and then the simulation running atop it. As the two situations diverge, you’ll see the simulated car keep driving and then a dashed box appear with the label “shadow_vehicle_pose.” That dashed box shows what happened in real life. To Waymo people, this is the clearest visualization of progress.

But they don’t just have to look for when the car gets stuck. They might want to look for too-long decision times or braking profiles outside the right range. Anything that engineers are working on learning or tuning, they will simulate looking for problems.
Both Stout and the Waymo software lead Dolgov stressed that there were three core facets to simulation. One, they drive a lot more miles than would be possible with a physical fleet—and experience is good. Two, those miles focus on the interesting and still-difficult interactions for the cars rather than boring miles. And three, the development cycles for the software can be much, much faster.“That iteration cycle is tremendously important to us and all the work we’ve done on simulation allows us to shrink it dramatically,” Dolgov told me. “The cycle that would take us weeks in the early days of the program now is on the order of minutes.”

Well, I asked him, what about oil slicks on the road? Or blown tires, weird birds, sinkhole-sized potholes, general craziness. Did they simulate those? Dolgov was sanguine. He said, sure, they could, but “how high do you push the fidelity of the simulator along that axis? Maybe some of those problems you get better value or you get confirmation of your simulator by running a bunch of tests in the physical world.” (See: Castle.)

The power of the virtual worlds of Carcraft is not that they are a beautiful, perfect, photorealistic renderings of the real world. The power is that they mirror the real world in the ways that are significant to the self-driving car and allow it to get billions more miles than physical testing would allow. For the driving software running the simulation, it is not like making decisions out there in the real world. It is the same as making decisions out there in the real world.

And it’s working. The California DMV requires that companies report the miles that they’ve driven autonomously each year along with disengagements that test drivers make. Not only has Waymo driven three orders of magnitude more miles than anyone else, but their number of disengagements have fallen quickly.

Waymo drove 635,868 autonomous miles from December 2015 to November 2016. In all those miles, they only disengaged 124 times, for an average of about once every 5,000 miles, or 0.20 disengagements per 1,000 miles. The previous year, they drove 424,331 autonomous miles and had 272 disengagements, for an average of once every 890 miles, or 0.80 disengagements per 1,000 miles.While everyone takes pains to note that these are not exactly apples-to-apples numbers, let’s be real here: These are the best comparisons we’ve got and in California, at least, everybody else drove about 20,000 miles. Combined.

The tack that Waymo has taken is not surprising to outside experts. “Right now, you can almost measure the sophistication of an autonomy team—a drone team, a car team—by how seriously they take simulation,” said Chris Dixon, a venture capitalist at Andreessen Horowitz who led the firm’s investment in the simulation company Improbable. “And Waymo is at the very top, the most sophisticated.”

I asked Allstate Insurance’s head of innovation, Sunil Chintakindi, about Waymo’s program. “Without a robust simulation infrastructure, there is no way you can build [higher levels of autonomy into vehicles].” he said. “And I would not engage in conversation with anyone who thinks otherwise.”

Other self-driving car researchers are also pursuing similar paths. Huei Peng is the director of Mcity, the University of Michigan’s autonomous- and connected- vehicle lab. Peng said that any system that works for self driving cars will be “a combination of more than 99 percent simulation plus some carefully designed structured testing plus some on-road testing.”

He and a graduate student proposed a system for interweaving road miles with simulation to rapidly accelerate testing. It’s not unlike what Waymo has executed. “So what we are arguing is just cut off the boring part of driving and focus on the interesting part,” Peng said. “And that can let you accelerate hundreds of times: A thousand miles becomes a million miles.”

What is surprising is the scale, organization, and intensity of Waymo’s project. I described the structured testing that Google had done to Peng, including the 20,000 scenarios that had made it into simulation from the structured testing team at Castle. But he misheard me and began to say, “Those 2,000 scenarios are impressive,”—when I cut in and corrected him—“It was 20,000 scenarios.” He paused. “20,000,” he said, thinking it over. “That’s impressive.”And in reality, those 20,000 scenarios only represent a fraction of the total scenarios that Waymo has tested. They’re just what’s been created from structured tests. They have even more scenarios than that derived from public driving and imagination.

“They are doing really well,” Peng said. “They are far ahead of everyone else in terms of Level Four,” using the jargon shorthand for full autonomy in a car.

But Peng also presented the position of the traditional automakers. He said that they are trying to do something fundamentally different. Instead of aiming for the full autonomy moon shot, they are trying to add driver-assistance technologies, “make a little money,” and then step forward toward full autonomy. It’s not fair to compare Waymo, which has the resources and corporate freedom to put a $70,000 laser range finder on top of a car, with an automaker like Chevy that might see $40,000 as its price ceiling for mass-market adoption.

“GM, Ford, Toyota, and others are saying ‘Let me reduce the number of crashes and fatalities and increase safety for the mass market.’ Their target is totally different,” Peng said. “We need to think about the millions of vehicles, not just a few thousand.”And even just within the race for full autonomy, Waymo now has more challengers than it used to, Tesla in particular. Chris Gerdes is the director of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford. Eighteen months ago, he told my colleague Adrienne LaFrance that Waymo “has much greater insight into the depth of the problems and how close we are [to solving them] than anyone else.” When I asked him last week if he still thought that was true, he said that “a lot has changed.”

“Auto manufacturers such as Ford and GM have deployed their own vehicles and built on-road data sets,” he said. “Tesla has now amassed an extraordinary amount of data from Autopilot deployment, learning how the system operates in exactly the conditions its customers experience. Their ability to test algorithms on board in a silent mode and their rapidly expanding base of vehicles combine to form an amazing testbed.”

In the realm of simulation, Gerdes said that he had seen multiple competitors with substantial programs. “I am sure there is quite a range of simulation capabilities but I have seen a number of things that look solid,” he said. “Waymo no longer looks so unique in this respect. They certainly jumped out to an early lead but there are now a lot of groups looking at similar approaches. So it is now more of a question of who can do this best.”

This is not a low-stakes demonstration of a neural network’s “brain-like” capacities. This is making a massive leap forward in artificial intelligence, even for a company inside Alphabet, which has been aggressive in adopting AI. This is not Google Photos, where a mistake doesn’t mean much. This is a system that will live and interact in the human world completely autonomously. It will understand our rules, communicate its desires, be legible to our eyes and minds.Waymo seems like it has driving as a technical skill—the speed and direction parts of it—down. It is driving as a human social activity that they’re working on now. What is it to drive “normally,” not just “legally”? And how does one teach an artificial intelligence what that means?

It turns out that building this kind of artificial intelligence does not simply require endless data and engineering prowess. Those are necessary, but not sufficient. Instead, building this AI requires humans to sync with the cars, understanding the world as they do. As much as anyone can, the drivers out at Castle know what it is to be one of these cars, to see and make decisions like them. Maybe that goes both ways, too: The deeper humans understand the cars, the deeper the cars understand humans.

A memory of a roundabout in Austin becomes a piece of Castle becomes a self-driving car data log becomes a Carcraft scenario becomes a web of simulations becomes new software that finally heads back out on a physical self-driving car to that roundabout in Texas.

Even within the polygon abstraction of the simulation the AI uses to know the world, there are traces of human dreams, fragments of recollections, feelings of drivers. And these components are not mistakes or a human stain to be scrubbed off, but necessary pieces of the system that could revolutionize transportation, cities, and damn near everything else.

Merced County is developing a 2,000-acre auto tech center for Silicon Valley’s self-driving cars

Jul 31, 2017
by Jody Meacham
Silicon Valley Business Journal.

Merced County is in the process of developing a 2,000-acre site encompassing the former Castle Air Force Base, which it hopes will become the center for testing, development and manufacturing of automotive technology, including for many of the self-driving cars being developed in Silicon Valley.

Adam Wasserman, managing partner of Scottsdale, Arizona-based GLDPartners, which consults with international companies on optimizing their supply chains, said the project expects to announce its first tenant — likely linked to Silicon Valley’s R&D efforts on autonomous driving R&D — by early fall.

Google is already using a site adjacent to Merced County’s planned Mid-California AutoTech Testing, Development and Production Campus for its self-driving car testing. (photo courtesy of Google Inc).

Google is already using a 91-acre site for its own autonomous car testing program adjacent to the planned Mid-California AutoTech Testing, Development and Production Campus, county officials said.

At full build-out, the development plan calls for 8 million square feet of industrial space employing about 9,300 people.

“It just puts us on that technology map that everybody in Silicon Valley is enjoying,” said Daron McDaniel, chair of the county’s board of supervisors.

Merced County hired GLDPartners after several failed attempts to commercialize the Castle property, which it took ownership of in 2006 following the air base’s 1995 closure.

The county’s median family income was about $43,000 in 2016, about 80 percent of the national median, and about a quarter of its 262,000 residents live below the poverty line, according to census figures.

Before settling on auto technology, the company researched several other business sectors including food production, medical products, commercial space systems, industrial machines and specialty chemicals based on how they might fit in those sectors’ supply chains.

“The project takes advantage of the dire lack of testing facilities anywhere in the country, much less in California, where much of the research that is shaping the global auto industry is now taking place,” Wasserman wrote in an email.

The site works because of the concentration of international auto tech research in Silicon Valley, the proximity of Bay Area universities and 13-year-old UC Merced, which is forecast to double its enrollment to 14,000 students within three years and already has solar energy and drone facilities at Castle.

That is coupled with transportation infrastructure including an airfield capable of handling the largest cargo planes and two major railroads connected to ports in Stockton and Oakland so that the site can handle manufacturing as well as testing.

The county is securing $200 million to connect the site to State Route 99 by a road to be called the Atwater-Merced Expressway.

“We strongly believe — and it’s obviously been evidenced by Google and the work they do onsite with their autonomous vehicle program — we’re going to be incredibly competitive in the auto tech sector,” said Mark Hendrickson, the county’s economic development director.

Part of the site was originally pitched by the county to California high-speed rail officials for the system’s heavy maintenance facility, which is to be located in the San Joaquin Valley, but McDaniel said there has been no indication when they would make a decision.

“If high-speed rail wants us they need to pull the trigger right away,” he said.

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Ruiz Foods expansion, Best Buy deal among good news for Dinuba

published on June 23, 2017
Written by David Castellon

The summer is starting well for Dinuba’s economy, as the city has attracted a large printing and direct-mail business, will see Ruiz Foods expand and inked a new sales tax-sharing deal with its Best Buy Co. distribution center.

Under that 45-year deal, the city’s portion of the electronic giant’s online sales fulfilled from its West Coast distribution center in Dinuba will increase from about $5 million annually to $8 million.

“Sales tax makes up 41 percent of the city’s General Fund revenues. Now a new deal stabilizes the amount and grows it as online sales grow. Above a certain amount the city and Best Buy share sales tax 50-50,” City Manager Luis Patlan states in a press release.

The release doesn’t offer a more detailed explanation of the deal.

“An $8 million nugget every year should make a big impact in a town that as recently as 2014 had sales tax revenue of only $3.3 million from all sources,” the press release continues.

Best Buy has reported that its first-quarter e-commerce sales for 2017 were up by a dramatic 22.5 percent compared to the first three months of last year.

E-commerce comprises about 13 percent of Best Buy’s domestic sales.

In other good news for the city, Woodside Homes is developing new homes on 107 parcels at the planned Ridge Creek Ranch subdivision, near Ridge Creek Golf Club.

Model homes are scheduled to open in July.

In addition, the former Kmart department store at in the 2000 block of East El Monte Way is being remodeled for a new tenant, a Fitness Evolution gym, Dinuba officials report.

http://thebusinessjournal.com/ruiz-foods-expansion-best-buy-deal-among-good-news-dinuba/

 

Nemat Inc. Unveiling Solar System for Industrial Application

What: Grand Opening of Nemat Inc.’s, Lean Solar Company and the unveiling of their 150 KW pilot solar system
When: 10 a.m., Friday, July 14th
Where: Nemat Inc. – 19225 Road 24, Madera, CA 93638

(Madera, California) – Nemat Inc. is unveiling a 150 KW-DC solar system at their headquarters facility in Madera, CA. Owner Mike Nemat will also be celebrating the Grand Opening of his new company, Lean Solar. Lean Solar is a developer, manufacturer, and installer of “turnkey” high quality modular ground-mount solar systems for industrial applications. Nemat says his solar system is 30% less than market price and will save customers up to 70% of their energy costs. The system is an ownership program. Nemat is also considering offering financing programs with a 5-6 year purchase option. The down payment can be covered by a 30% tax credit offered by the federal government.

Lean Solar manages the entire project including; concept design, system design, municipalities permit process, manufacturing, installation, and interconnection with utility companies. The entire project is implemented in 45-60 days. This is achieved through their modular design and manufacturing, as well as pre-assembled installation. The system is designed and made in the USA and has a 20 year warranty.

The new venture will expand their operations in Madera and double their employment of 35.

CalCom and SunLink Partner to Bring Solar to Farms in California’s Central Valley

Central California

February 15, 2017
Business Wire

With shared expertise in designing, permitting, building and optimizing solar energy systems for agricultural operations, SunLink Corporation and CalCom Solar have successfully completed three solar projects in Shafter and Wasco, Calif. – the first in a larger Central Valley portfolio of installations.

This Smart News Release features multimedia. View the full release here: http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20170215005355/en/

To streamline all project construction, SunLink standardized its mounting solution design and permit set to align with CalCom’s installation preferences. SunLink PowerCare geotechnical testing was also performed on sites in Madera and Tipton, Calif., to optimize designs and inform the installation teams in order to further accelerate these projects’ timelines. CalCom was then able to customize and complete the installation per that customer’s needs, such as uneven terrain and boundary constraints.

“When it comes to the geotechnical, engineering and installation expertise essential for agricultural solar projects, our suite of products+services+software solutions answers the needs of farmers and growers for lower project costs, reduced risk and easy long-term operation. We understand the project priorities and drivers of this market,” said SunLink CEO Michael Maulick. “Working closely with the other agricultural experts at CalCom, we are able to streamline the entire project lifecycle and deliver more successful energy assets.”

“CalCom Solar has the technology and knowledge that can help make solar work for many farmers both financially and operationally. By going solar, farming operations can significantly lower operational costs, saving them more money annually on utility bills. The system will also help hedge against raising utility rates, delivering significate utility savings over the next 25 years,” stated Dylan Dupre, CEO of CalCom Solar. “CalCom has made a name for itself as a leader in Central Valley agricultural solar with more than 100 MW deployed at some of the largest agricultural sites in the region. We seek out partners who also pride themselves with capabilities in this area, and SunLink’s demonstrated success from engineering to mounting solutions has proven a valuable asset.”

About SunLink

SunLink Corporation brings powerful solar energy solutions to market through innovative, highly engineered products, in-demand customer services and best-of-breed software that make solar PV electricity easier, safer, more reliable and less expensive to install. In addition to bringing to market well-designed products that are agile in their implementation, the company leverages unparalleled R&D, a legacy of more than a GW of successful projects, state-of-the-art engineering and creative problem solving to develop optimized, full-scope product+service+software solutions for roof and ground-mount solar projects of every size and complexity. It is this unique combination of trusted insights, products, services and EnTech convergence that helps solar developers and installers overcome obstacles and furthers the industry’s shared mission of advancing universal solar power adoption. For more information, visit www.sunlink.com or follow twitter.com/sunlink.

About CalCom Solar

Founded in California’s Central Valley, CalCom Solar provides energy solutions for commercial agricultural operations and water management organizations. Today CalCom Solar employs 58 people full-time, and hires as many as 70 temporary employees from the local community. The success of the company reflects CalCom Solar’s sustainability ethic and strong conviction that a company can provide customers with reliable energy solutions, maintain profitability, and have a positive impact on the community and the environment. For more information, please visit www.calcomsolar.co

Wonderful Real Estate Signs 10 Year Lease for 400,000 SF BTS Facility at Wonderful Industrial Park

Central California

Published on Jason Gremillion
Wonderful Real Estate

We are excited to announce our newest success at Wonderful Industrial Park. WRE has signed a 10 year lease for a new 405ksf BTS facility. WRE worked closely with the tenant over the past two months utilizing WRE’s ProCore software to create a seamless and expedited design process. The result will allow WRE to commence construction by mid-June 2017 and deliver the completed facility by February 2018!

$1 Billion Neighborhood

Central California

March 31, 2017
Manteca Bulletin
Dennis Wyatt

The 209’s most unique — and what could become the most prestigious — residential address will become available this spring.

River Islands at Lathrop plans to sell the first of 990 lots set aside for custom executive-style homes overlooking the San Joaquin River, Paradise Cut, and the Old River that will also back up to an 18-mile greenbelt park along the water’s edge encircling the 11,000-home planned community.

Lots will range in size from 8,000 to 20,000 square feet and will start at $200,000. To put that in perspective if all of the lots were to sell for $200,000 regardless of size or factoring in inflation over the years it takes for all to be sold, it represents $198 million in land sales alone.

And given the expectations the homes will all exceed $1 million, River Islands will one day be ringed by $1 billion worth of homes.

River Islands Project Manager Susan Dell’Osso indicated initial plans will be to develop 65 lots with no more than 10 lots ever being offered at one time. River Islands is likely to roll out the lots in conjunction with various phases over the community’s projected 20-year buildout.

Dell’Osso said the lots will be offered for a period of a month or so to the 250 people that are on an interest list before they are made available to the general buying public.

When completed it will be the largest concentration of executive-style homes in the Great Central Valley if not Northern California outside of well-to-do enclaves such as Atherton when it is based on housing style and not simply price. There are $1 million homes in San Jose, as an example, that are previously owned KB tract homes that have been closing escrow as well as 60-year-old flattops with less than 1,800 square feet in Marin County.

The homes on the River Islands custom lots will be at least three times the median home value in Lathrop ($357,000) and Manteca ($345,000). To get a financially comparable property in the Bay Area it would have to sell for more than $3 million.

There is nowhere in the Central Valley where you can buy a home site next to a river that overlooks it. That’s because other locations where homes are sold next to the river have their view blocked by towering levees. The custom home sites at River Islands are on top of 300-foot wide super levees — at least six times wider than a typical levee. They have been certified to withstand the maximum flood that the Army Corps of Engineers rate levees for which is a 200-year flood or an event that has a 1 in 200 chance of happening in any given year.

Dell’Osso said the state is in the final stages of reviewing plans for the greenbelt looping River Islands. Besides a path suitable for bicycling, walking, and jogging plans call for exercise par courses throughout as well as planting native shrubs and vegetation.

It will also be universally accessible meaning anyone including non-River Islands residents can use the greenbelt. It also could end up with one — or no — interruptions. Last year River Islands modified the original design for the main entrance via the new bridge across the San Joaquin River so that the greenbelt trail would be connected by a bridge that is now in place across the four-lane road.

The current access road from Manthey Road will eventually be closed eliminating that disruption in the loop trail. The future western access to River Islands may also have a bridge across it to allow the entire trail not to have to cross a road.

That is something that the valley’s existing premier urban riverside trail — the American River Parkway in Sacramento — can’t claim.

To get an idea how far the 18 mile River Island loop trail would be, it is 18.5 miles from downtown Manteca to downtown Modesto.

While the exact name of the trail hasn’t been selected, Dell’Osso said it will be named after Lathrop’s quintessential couple — Bennie and Joyce Gatto.

Bronco Wine expansion, with 30 new jobs, wins support

Central California

 May 5, 2017
Modesto Bee
By John Holland

Bronco Wine Co. got support Thursday night for a major expansion at its headquarters south of Ceres — and praise for a notable product.

The Stanislaus County Planning Commission voted 7-0 for a rezoning that will ease the way for new warehouse and office space. The Board of Supervisors will make the final decision on the plan, expected to create about 30 jobs at the Keyes Road site.

Bronco markets its wines under dozens of labels and also sells bulk wine to other producers. It is best known for Charles Shaw, which first sold for $1.99 at Trader Joe’s stores and came to be known as Two Buck Chuck. It’s now up to $2.99.

Commissioner Katherine Borges recalled that a 2005 version was named best chardonnay at the California State Fair. It competed against about 350 higher-priced bottles.

Borges suggested that Bronco add a tasting room, but company representative Dan Leonard said that is not in the plan.

“It’s a production facility supporting ag, supporting grapes,” said Leonard, a vice president and treasurer.

Bronco, founded in 1974, is one of the nation’s largest wine producers. The Keyes Road site does crushing, fermenting, aging and bottling of a large part of its volume. About 325 people work there year-round, and seasonal employees can bring the total to 550.

Leonard declined to say how much the expansion will cost. The first phase, taking up to five years, includes a 120,000-square-foot warehouse that is part of an eventual 613,000 square feet of new storage. This phase also involves two spurs from the Union Pacific Railroad line next to the site, which Leonard said would cut down on truck traffic.

Bronco plans to move into the later phases as wine sales grow. They include 81,000 square feet for offices and other space for training and other needs.

Dust Bowl Brewing Company Extends Distribution in California

Central California

Published  February 13, 2017

Dust Bowl Brewing Company recently signed with Premium Beverage Company, expanding the growing brewery’s distribution into California’s Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito counties.

Founded in 2005, Premium Beverage is based in Salinas, California and distributes domestic, craft and imported beers along with ciders and an extensive portfolio of non-alcoholic products. Premium Beverage services all major chains, independent grocers, restaurants, liquor stores and convenience stores. Dust Bowl Brewing Co. joins other leading craft brands including Rogue, Shiner and Trumer to name a few.

“Now that we are fully operational in our new brewery, we are poised to grow our distribution. Our ability to brew significantly more beer allows us to aggressively pursue new territories as we navigate the competitive craft beer industry,” shares founder, Brett Tate. “Premium Beverage Company shares our same commitment to superior customer service and is aligned with our growth strategy. The timing is ideal.”

“We’re excited to add Dust Bowl Brewing Company to our portfolio,” adds John Holt, President, Premium Beverage Co. “The Central Valley brewery has experienced impressive sales growth since its inception in 2009 and is committed to expanding their product offering even more in 2017. Their brand recognition is on the rise, they produce quality beer and they’re clearly invested in the future. Dust Bowl is an excellent fit with our craft beer model.”

Dust Bowl Brewing Co. produces a wide range of draft beer along with a portfolio of year-around and limited-release bottled products. The company opened its new brewery, located in Turlock, California, in June 2016 and plans to produce 15,000-20,000 barrels in the first year, compared to 5,000 barrels in 2015.

In addition to Premium Beverage Company, Dust Bowl Brewing Co. currently has six other distributors: Delta Sierra Beverage covers the California Central Valley, Mussetter Distributing handles the Sacramento region, Delta Pacific covers the Fresno region, Morris Distributing handles San Francisco and the North Bay, Bay Area Distributing services Contra Costa and Alameda counties and Barone Distribution covers the state of Nevada.

Current expansion plans include further south down the Central Coast, Southern California and into the Pacific Northwest.

Dust Bowl Brewing Company produced its first beer in May 2009. The Company forecasts 15,000-20,000 barrels annual production. Dust Bowl Brewing Company beers are available in 5 and 15.5 gallon kegs along with selected styles in 22oz. and 12oz. bottles. Distribution includes Central and Northern California, Nevada and Vermont. The craft brewery showcases a wide variety of its beers at its two Turlock, Calif. taproom locations, Brewery Taproom and Downtown Taproom. More information may be found at www.dustbowlbrewing.com.