Google's self-driving cars are required to have a brake, accelerator, and steering wheel to test in California. But the Big G has found a loophole, and it's making unwitting test subjects out of NASA employees at the Ames Research Center outside of Mountain View, CA.
Google struck a deal with Ames management to test its control-less prototypes on the campus where over 2,000 NASA employees work. The reason: it's based on the Moffett Federal Airfield, which isn't subject to the California's autonomous vehicle testing regulations.
As you'd expect, some of Ames' employees aren't exactly thrilled to be sharing their campus with driverless robocars, among them is Ames Federal Employees Union President, Leland Stone.
"Civilized society long ago rejected coerced human participation in experiments, but strangely, senior leadership thus far does not appear to fully grasp this," Stone wrote in a letter to NASA employees. "We hope again that common sense will prevail to resolve this concern, but the bottom line is that the union is prepared to take every lawful action necessary to prevent management from forcing Ames employees to be guinea pigs in an experiment against their will."
The deputy director at Ames, Deb Feng, told the Mountain View Voice:
Ames established and implemented a multi-disciplinary safety board to review the proposed research activities and operations of these vehicles. Prior to operating autonomous automobiles on the Ames campus, Google will provide appropriate documentation and information to obtain approval from Ames Protective Services and the Ames Safety Office. Employees may discuss any concerns with their supervisors prior to the tests.
Considering the current issues Google has with its autonomous vehicles, the employees aren't completely unwarranted.
"Folks should not be participating in experiments either coercively or unwittingly," Stone told the Mountain View Voice. "Someone may say, 'I'm pregnant and I'm not going to take a chance. I don't want to be that one-in-a-million who gets hit.' Shouldn't that person be able to opt-out? We expect that nothing bad will happen, but we have to prepare for the worst, so all participants can say, 'I understood the risks.'"
A Google spokesperson clarified the company's approach, saying, "As we develop new technologies, we often partner with organizations like NASA Ames who have related interest and expertise. In all cases, we collaborate closely with our partners to ensure that all testing is conducted safely."
Google has tested its autonomous Lexus and Prius models at Ames, is currently collecting mapping data, and plans to start using the facility for its latest self-driving prototype in October and continue through 2018. Ames officials are due to address the concerns brought up by the union today.