11:30 p.m. EDT June 20, 2016
Washington — Ford, Volvo, Google, Uber and Lyft are stepping up their lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill as lawmakers begin to craft regulations for self-driving cars, and they have hired a former National Highway Transportation Safety Administration chief to be their frontman.
The carmakers and tech companies have joined forces to form a lobby group called Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets in an effort to make sure regulations aren’t put in place that might suppress development efforts for autonomous vehicles. But some critics warn of a too-cozy relationship between the industry and regulators, and say that rules must be sufficiently tough to keep the public safe.
The industry group has tapped David Strickland, who was NHTSA administrator from 2010-14, to be the public face of the effort to steer Congress toward favorable regulations for self-driving autos.
Strickland said he accepted the position with the self-driving coalition because he believes the technology is ripe for widespread deployment in the near future and has the potential to save lives by sharply reducing the number of crashes on the nation’s roads.
The former NHTSA chief pointed out that multiple car and tech companies are moving forward with testing self-driving autos, and states like Michigan and California are beginning to craft their own regulations.
A bill that would allow self-driving cars to be operated on any of the Michigan’s 122,000 miles of roads and eliminate the need for a driver to be behind the wheel when they are in motion was introduced last month in the state Senate.
California has taken the opposite tack with a proposal that would require a licensed driver — and a steering wheel — to be in the car at all times.
Strickland said the differing approaches between the two states shows the need for Congress to develop one set of federal rules for self-driving cars.
Strickland said the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets wants to ensure federal rules do not stifle the development of the technology that will be used to power driverless vehicles.
Most importantly, he said, they want to make sure the eventual rules do not prohibit fully autonomous operation of cars that may eventually be built without steering wheels and foot pedals.
“The concern for the coalition is our goal of full self-driving. That answers a lot of the problems we’ve tried to address with human error,” he said, pointing out that 94 percent of all car crashes involve mistakes made by drivers.
“If you pull the driver back in, you’re not addressing human error,” Strickland said.
The former NHTSA chief said he expects the process that results in federal regulations for self-driving autos to be a “collaborative” effort between his former agency and members of Congress, who have already begun hold hearings about the potential rewards and risks of the new technology.
“My experience working with Congress (at NHTSA) is that they want to work with the oversight committees,” he said.
“I don’t see it as an arms race. Traditionally, the conversation has been two responsible authorities who work to ensure there are no gaps in safety regulations.”
NHTSA, automakers relationship
Critics see Strickland’s involvement in the self-driving coalition as evidence of a cozy relationship between NHTSA and car companies that has resulted in lax oversight of the auto industry.
“The revolving door between NHTSA and industry has become an embarrassment to the agency and the administration,” John Simpson, privacy project director at the Santa Monica, California-based Consumer Watchdog group, wrote in a letter to NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind.
Simpson asked Rosekind to promise not to lobby for auto companies that are pushing for self-driving cars for seven years after he leaves office at the end of the year. He noted “including Strickland, four former agency officials are now leading the race for Google to develop self-driving robot cars without steering wheels and brake pedals so a human driver can take control.
“The practice has become so commonplace that potential NHTSA employees must anticipate that a golden parachute will await them when they jump ship to land at an automotive or technology company,” Simpson wrote.
He said his organization “supports autonomous vehicle policies, such as those proposed by the California Department of Motor Vehicles that require a driver behind a steering wheel and brake pedal capable of assuming control of the self-driving robot technology when something goes wrong.
“Data from self-driving car developers show this is a key safety provision,” Simpson wrote.
“For example, in a required disengagement report filed with the California DMV Google said its self-driving technology failed 341 times during the reporting period. The technology turned over control to the test driver 272 times because it couldn’t cope and the test driver intervened 69 times because they felt the situation was dangerous.”
Confidence vs. real-world tests
Missy Cummings, from Duke University’s autonomy and robotics lab, agrees that self-driving cars need to be tested in real-world road and weather conditions before they can be deployed on a large scale.
“They need to go up to Minneapolis for a winter or Boston for a winter or Seattle,” said Cummings, who testified before Congress in March on the need for further testing of autonomous vehicles.
“I’m not saying I don’t think these cars should be on the road, but I don’t think they’re ready.”
The members of the coalition that has been formed to lobby for favorable rules for self-driving autos in Washington have expressed full confidence in the emerging technology.
“We believe fully autonomous vehicles will help people travel more safely and efficiently, as well as facilitate mobility for those currently unable to drive,” Ford said in a statement when the group was first launched in April.
San Francisco-based Lyft added: “Eventually, the world will move to one where autonomous vehicles are a major mode of time transportation. They’ll increase accessibility, affordability — and importantly, improve safety.”
Critics like Simpson and Cummings are not so sure, however.
“If the Google car can perform flawlessly in the winter in Boston, good for them,” Cummings said. “But I don’t think that’s going to happen.”