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Will NASA Ames workers be 'guinea pigs' for Google?

Agreement to allow Google to test driverless cars at NASA Ames campus

Google is planning to take a leap forward in the development of its self-driving car by removing drivers from test vehicles in a real-world environment. The only problem is that some NASA Ames Research Center employees aren't happy about the prospect of becoming test subjects as they walk around the Moffett Field campus.

Ames Federal Employees Union president Leland Stone says Ames employees will be subjected to the "potentially risky" experiment this fall, when Google is slated to begin running its self-driving car prototypes -- without live drivers to take the wheel if needed -- around the Ames campus, where more than 2,000 people work for NASA. Google needs to begin proving the cars can work in a real world environment, and Ames management obliged, signing an agreement to allow the cars to operate driverless among pedestrians at Ames, located on a Federal base that's not subject to state laws regulating self-driving vehicles.

"Civilized society long ago rejected coerced human participation in experiments, but strangely, senior leadership thus far does not appear to fully grasp this," Stone said in an August 28 email to NASA employees saying that it appeared that Ames management was not embracing typical protocol for experiments involving humans. "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."

Stone said union officials expressed a number of concerns to Ames management on July 1 and have not received a response, though a meeting to discuss the issue is scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 4, after the Voice went to press.

"The union does not oppose and is indeed supportive of these innovative partnerships, we just want to make sure that NASA's culture of safety and ethics" is followed, Stone said.

In a statement, Ames deputy director Deb Feng said that a board had been formed to review the planned tests.

"Ames established and implemented a multi-disciplinary safety board to review the proposed research activities and operations of these vehicles," Feng said. "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.

A Google spokesperson said, "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."

While Google's self-driving cars have logged over 700,000 miles and may be operated in several states with drivers behind the wheel who can take over in an emergency, the cars have yet to operate without a driver while sharing the road with people who are either driving, walking or biking. The lead developer of the technology for Google, Chris Urmson, admitted recently that the technology still has some big shortfalls that he says can be overcome: the stoplight sensors are sometimes foiled by bright sunlight, the cars can't drive in snow or rain, would drive right into a pothole, might treat a plastic bag in the road as if it were a boulder and would ignore a police officer on the side of the road waving for the car to stop.

"The cars will be "interacting with humans and other obstacles, to measure them as they move around and use that data to adjust and refine their algorithms so it learns how to interact better in an environment with human beings in it," Stone said. "The problem is the state of California and other jurisdictions are not allowing them to test them out driver-less on their populations, and rightly so, because it is non-trivial. They are taking advantage of the fact that California law does not apply on a Federal base."

Stone said he sent an email about the issue to all Ames employees after management did not immediately reassure the union that regular procedures for experiments on human subjects would be followed. That includes allowing two different committees to review the technical details of the tests and make sure people on the campus are informed of the risks of participating and to opt out if they choose.

"Folks should not be participating in experiments either coercively or unwittingly," Stone said. "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.'"

If there are people who don't feel comfortable with being in harm's way, said Stone, they should be able to work on a part of the base where the self-driving cars won't be present. "That's totally consistent with American values and culture, as well as law," he said.

"My beef is not with Google," Stone said. "What we're concerned about is that management appears reluctant to embrace our usual ways of doing business." However, he said he is optimistic that they will do so in the end.

The cars are scheduled begin testing without drivers at Ames in October and the agreement indicates that the activity may continue until 2018. Google has already begun testing the cars with drivers behind the wheel at Ames, and has been creating the detailed maps of the campus that the cars require to operate without drivers.

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