Top US transportation chiefs urged not to work for robot carmakers

robotcarAmerica’s  Consumer Watchdog on Thursday called on US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind to “slam the revolving door” with the robot car industry shut with a written commitment that they will not work as an employee or consultant to developers of self-driving autonomous vehicles for at least seven years after leaving their respective positions.

“Slam shut the revolving door that has become the reward for taking a top job at NHTSA. Failure to do so will leave the public with the troubling perception that the revised autonomous vehicle policies expected to be released in July have been crafted with an eye focused on your future employment prospects rather than on the public interest,” wrote John M. Simpson Consumer Watchdog Privacy Project Director in a letter to the two officials.

At least four former high-ranking NHTSA officials are now working on behalf of Google’s self-driving car project.

Foxx and Rosekind have been pressing to deploy autonomous vehicle technology rapidly.  Last December the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said that the autonomous technology controlling a self-driving robot car could be considered to be the driver. In January Foxx said NHTSA would update its autonomous vehicle policy in six months. Foxx encouraged manufacturers to submit requests for use of NHTSA’s exemption authority to allow the deployment of fully autonomous vehicles.

Consumer Watchdog’s letter said the importance of this commitment not to work for industry was driven home on the eve of NHTSA’s second public meeting on autonomous vehicle technology. That’s when it was revealed that former NHTSA Administrator David L. Strickland would serve as counsel and spokesman for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, comprised of Google, Lyft, Uber, Ford and Volvo.

Ron Medford, former Deputy Director of NHTSA, is Director of Safety for Google’s self-driving car program.Chan Lieu, who served as Director of Government Affairs, Policy and Strategic Planning at NHTSA, is at Venable, LLP, like Strickland and lobbies for Google. Daniel Smith, who ran NHTSA’s Office of Vehicle Safety, is now a Google consultant.

NHTSA’s revolving door is not a recent development, Consumer Watchdog noted.  From 1984 to 2010, according to USA Today, the Department of Transportation inspector general found that 40 officials left the safety agency for jobs with automakers, their law firms or auto industry consultants. The group included four administrators, two deputy administrators, seven associate administrators and two chief counsels. In addition, 23 auto industry executives moved into top NHTSA jobs from 1999 to 2010.

“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. “Is it any wonder that the public doubts you when you claim that safety is your top priority and that you are acting in our interest?”

Consumer Watchdog 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, Consumer Watchdog said.  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.

Consumer Watchdog’s letter concluded:

“You have repeatedly said that safety is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s top priority. However, whatever autonomous polices emerge in July, this much is certain: Unless you lead by example and repudiate the revolving door, any policy you produce will be viewed with skepticism if not downright distrust as a boon for the industry.

“You both are in a unique position to both enhance NHTSA’s standing and to demonstrate that the new autonomous vehicle polices to be issued in July are truly focused on the public’s safety and not your future employment prospects.  Slam the revolving door with industry shut. Consumer Watchdog calls on you both to pledge not to take employment with, serve as a consultant to, or lawyer for a company developing self-driving car technology for seven years.” – PRNewswire.

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