Industry spends big to sell safety of driverless cars

Industry spends big to sell safety of driverless cars
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Major players in the self-driving car industry are boosting their lobbying presence to convince policymakers in Washington the vehicles are safe for the road.

The industry has ambitious goals for bringing self-driving cars to the public, but a number of high-profile accidents as they test vehicles, including the crash of a Tesla on autopilot in March and the death of a pedestrian struck by an Uber in Arizona last year, have raised new concerns.

“Lawmakers and regulators’ incentives are set up for them to be very risk-averse with things like this,” said Geoffrey Burr, policy director at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, about the emerging technologies.

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“So, any sort of accident or breakdown of the technology is often going to garner an overreaction.”

That’s led autonomous car companies and traditional automakers, who are also investing in the field, to spend big in Washington.

General Motors, whose autonomous vehicle unit is called Cruise, spent more than $5.3 million on lobbying in the first two quarters of 2019, a pace that will top the $7.7 million spent all of last year. 

Uber, meanwhile, spent nearly $1.3 million in the first two quarters, which is also set to surpass its 2018 spending of $2.3 million.

Waymo, which is owned by Google parent company Alphabet, spent $290,000 in the first two quarters of the year, its first year of lobbying. And the firm has an in-house lobbyist, David Quinalty, a former policy director on the Senate Commerce Committee.

Tesla, another major player, has spent $300,000, but spent $900,000 last year.

Self-driving startup Aurora doesn’t yet have a lobbying footprint but in August hired Melissa Froelich, former chief counsel on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, as senior manager of government relations.

Burr said safety concerns are paramount.

“In my experience, the companies that are truly serious about this are also the ones being more cautious and deliberate,” Burr said.

But the companies face a challenging task in Washington, where a number of committees and agencies are all looking into a host of issues involving self-driving cars, from road safety to cybersecurity. 

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And selling the public on the cars will be a tough task with recent accidents gaining national attention.

In the Tesla crash, the vehicle was not autonomous but on autopilot but with a driver at the wheel. After the death of the pedestrian in Arizona in the Uber self-driving test, The New York Times reported about incidents of vandalism on autonomous cars being used in tests.

“The public remains skeptical of the safety assurances being made by manufacturers despite the vast sums of money being paid to lobbyists to rewrite laws in order to sell unproven autonomous technology for use on public streets,” Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, told The Hill.

Industry players are joining forces to make their case. 

In 2016, Ford, Lyft, Uber, Volvo Cars and Waymo established the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets to promote the safety of self-driving vehicles to lawmakers, regulators and the public.

“In this case, it’s not only the automakers or the technology companies, but putting those together in one coalition I think sends a strong signal maybe to policymakers that it’s not ... one sector or one industry speaking this way,” said Ariel Wolf, coalition counsel.

And the lobbying blitz isn’t just focused on Washington.

“Across these different sectors, they’re able to speak with one voice, and that’s an important element in the conversation we’re seeing at the state and federal levels,” said Wolf.

In the absence of a federal standard, a number of states have enacted their own rules on self-driving cars. Arizona’s governor banned Uber from testing self-driving cars in Arizona after the accident that killed a pedestrian.

Uber is beginning a new round of testing in Texas, but the cars there will only be operated manually.

Uber is constantly working with policymakers at both state and federal levels, Danielle Burr, head of Uber Federal Affairs, told The Hill in a statement.

“We believe that transparency around our self-driving program and keeping all government stakeholders aware of operational developments is key to moving this technology forward,” she said.

Since the death in Arizona, Uber has taken steps including new training for car operators, cameras to monitor drivers, automated emergency braking and sharing safety reports.

But safety and consumer advocates are skeptical.

“Automakers have to spend record amounts on lobbying because the testing results in California show their autonomous vehicles are neither autonomous nor safe,” Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, said. “California Department of Motor Vehicle testing shows these so-called self-driving cars are not ready for the road if they have to drive themselves.”

Court questioned the lobbying blitz.

“If Congress wants to approve robot cars for the road it should do what California did and force companies to transparently prove the cars are ready first,” said Court. “They are clearly not, and that’s why the automakers are investing in K Street to get approval rather than being willing to disclose their test results everywhere.”

Companies insist they are committed to ensuring the safety of their cars. 

“Safety is a fundamental part of our culture, from our company values to how we’re developing our technology and the Aurora Driver,” Aurora said in a statement. “We focus, communicate, and collaborate to ensure we are making decisions that put safety front and center.”

Aurora is still developing its timetable to commercially deploy its vehicles. Other companies have floated more ambitious plans.

GM’s Cruise had plans to begin a self-driving taxi service in San Francisco in 2019. But in July, Cruise CEO Dan Ammann said the company would do more testing with hopes of seeing driverless cars on the road in 2020.

“When you’re working on the large scale deployment of mission critical safety systems, the mindset of ‘move fast and break things’ doesn’t cut it,” Amman said in a statement. “With such high stakes, our first deployment needs to be done right and we’re providing a service that customers want to use for all of their daily needs.” 

Securing the green light from Washington is the next big hurdle.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has requested public comment on amending the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, which says cars must have steering wheels and pedals, among other rules for automakers. And lawmakers want to work on a federal framework for rules, including both the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Senate Commerce Committee.

Geoffrey Burr, of Brownstein, previously worked as chief of staff to Transportation Secretary Elaine ChaoElaine Lan ChaoDemocratic chairman presses Transportation secretary over transparency in Boeing 737 Max probe Lawmakers toast Greta Van Susteren's new show Democratic lawmaker asks for probe of reports Chao favored Kentucky officials MORE.

“There are certain autonomous or semi-autonomous technologies that are ready to be deployed now that are making progress with regulators, getting their confidence so that they can start testing or even deploying their technology,” he said. “But then there’s other aspects of the AV [autonomous vehicle] community where they’re trying to get waivers for things that they’re years and years away from being able to manufacture or deploy, and it feels like more of a PR play.”

But Wolf said eventually the public and policymakers will accept that self-driving cars will be safer than normal cars, despite recent accidents.

“The response is to look at the baseline, more than 35,000 lives were lost on the U.S. road last year in motor vehicle crashes. We know that 94 percent of them were caused by human error. So, it is imperative that the coalition continues to work on self-driving cars to reduce that tragic number and improve road safety,” he said. 

“The members remain in the development and testing phases of self-driving technology and, again, they’re committed to doing this. They are doing this in as safe and thorough manner as possible.”

This story was updated at 11:15 a.m.