NASA employees could soon cross paths with an unusual sight — self-driving robot cars without any human drivers or even steering wheels. Google plans to test a new self-driving car by using NASA's 2000-acre Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, California in late 2014 or early 2015.
The planned tests would mark the first time that Google has tested its self-driving cars on streets without having a human driver for backup. The technology giant has already tested self-driving versions of Lexus and Toyota vehicles on California roads with human drivers behind the wheel and ready to take over — just as required by California state law. But the future tests at the NASA Ames Research Center can dodge state rules because the grounds represent federal property, according to state officials interviewed by the San Jose Mercury News.
Google began developing its new self-driving, all-electric prototype earlier this year. The two-seat compact car can operate without a steering wheel, brake pedal or gas pedal, and would start out capped at a speed of just 40 kilometers per hour. The two passengers would just have separate start and stop buttons for direct manual control, as well as a screen to show their current route.
For now, Google must install a temporary steering wheel and pedals to make the new prototypes compatible with California rules while testing the cars on public roads. But the cars could be tested on the NASA Ames campus with a human driver sometime between the next three to six months, according to a statement by Deborah Feng, associate director at NASA Ames. Tests without a human driver onboard could follow a month or two later.
The idea of walking around streets containing self-driving cars has some NASA Ames employees worried, according to the Mountain View Voice. Leland Stone, president of the Ames Federal Employees Union, emailed NASA Ames employees on August 28 to explain the union's opposition to how NASA management had been handling the possible risks.
"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 wrote.
If the Google tests at NASA Ames do succeed, they could pave the way for the next generation of truly driverless cars that lack common manual controls. In that case, passengers could finally feel guilt-free in kicking back and texting or calling a friend during their commutes or road trips.
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.