Self-Driving Car Companies Lobby Congress, Win Big

AutomobileTech
self-driving cars riding on the road

These companies joined forces in April 2016 to establish the lobbying group Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets. The group’s founding message describes the great potential of self-driving cars to “enhance public safety and mobility, reduce traffic congestion, improve environmental quality, and advance transportation efficiency.”

But the enthusiasm to get more self-driving cars on the road faster is not unanimous. Safety groups and consumers have expressed reservations about autonomous vehicles and the pace at which they are being adopted.

Opponents of the House and Senate legislation argue that autonomous vehicles are being rushed to market in too great a number and with too few regulations.

“The American public will be the crash-test dummies for self-driving cars if automakers aren’t held to higher standards.”

Consumers Union, the policy wing of Consumers Report, wrote a letter to Congress in response to the passage of the House bill, saying, “We are very concerned about provisions in the bill that would change federal law in ways that would open regulatory gaps and fail to adequately protect consumers from vehicle safety hazards.”

For example, some say the exemptions as written could allow manufacturers to have weaker standards for steering systems, brakes, and airbags.

Consumers Union calls for stronger safety protections, far fewer safety exemptions, NHTSA access to crash data for all automated vehicles (not just exempted vehicles), and increased federal funding for autonomous vehicle oversight.

Joan Claybrook, a chairwoman of Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety and the former president of Public Citizen and the NHTSA, said, “The American public will be the crash-test dummies for self-driving cars if automakers aren’t held to higher standards.”

Consumer and safety groups are not merely naysayers of self-driving technology. They agree that the vehicles can have a positive impact, but worry about a half-baked rollout damaging public perception.

“Even a small number of tragedies could negatively influence the public support needed to bring the best of this technology forward,” said Jack Gillis, director of the Consumer Federation of America. Mr. Gillis and other advocates have called for the formation of a specialized autonomous vehicle department employing experts to oversee driverless vehicle standards.

Fifty-one percent said they were not likely to ride in an autonomous vehicle.

Last month the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded “operational limitations” in a Tesla Autopilot system “played a major role” in a fatal May 2016 crash. More incidents like this could undermine Americans’ support of autonomous vehicles, which already is lukewarm.

According to a Morning Consult/POLITICO poll, 35 percent of respondents said automated technology is less safe than human-driven vehicles. Twenty-two percent said self-driving cars are safer than human drivers, and 26 percent were uncertain or had no opinion.

Fifty-one percent said they were not likely to ride in an autonomous vehicle.

Former Auto Regulator Now Lobbying for Private Sector

It’s not a coincidence that members of Congress are repeating industry talking points on autonomous vehicles and pushing forward industry-friendly legislation. The major driverless vehicle players are pouring millions of dollars into lobbying lawmakers.

Cozy relationships between public and private interests are hardly a secret. But the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets presents a stunning conflict-of-interest.

David Strickland will be working to influence the same government group he formerly ran.

The lead counsel and spokesperson for the coalition is David Strickland, the former head of the NHTSA. Mr. Strickland is also employed as a lobbyist at Venable LLP.

The coalition hired Mr. Venable to lobby on its behalf to the NHTSA. OpenSecrets.org shows that Mr. Venable met with the NHTSA twice in 2017 at a cost of $160,000. Acting as lobbyists were none other than David Strickland and Chan D. Lieu, who previously served as Director of Government Affairs, Policy, and Strategic Planning at NHTSA. Mr. Strickland and Mr. Lieu each spent eight years on the staff of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

Mr. Strickland working to influence the same government group he formerly led raises questions about whether public safety will take a backseat to the interests of autonomous vehicle makers.

In September the NHTSA released updated guidelines for self-driving cars. The new guidelines trim the 15-point safety assessment released last year under President Obama down to 12 points. But the bigger story is that the guidelines are now entirely voluntary.

While the assessments are “encouraged,” they’re “not subject to Federal approval.” This means Ford, Google, Uber, and other companies do not have to submit to safety checks or turn over crash data to the federal government for review.

Deborah A.P. Hersman, President and CEO of the National Safety Council, notes that the NHTSA “has yet to receive any Safety Assessments, even though vehicles are being tested in many states.”

Nevertheless, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao–who is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell–says that “safety is primary” in the revised guidelines.

Mandating safety measures such as clear disclosure, validation processes prior to vehicle deployment, and data sharing requirements will now fall to Congress, says Ms. Hersman.

But the House and Senate bills do little to assuage critics’ concerns on these points. As the heavily lobbied self-driving car legislation is quickly pushed through, skeptics can be forgiven for feeling like carmakers have been handed the keys.

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