One thread of emails, from 2012, underscores how closely officials in Washington and in Silicon Valley appeared to be working together. The thread picks up after an exchange that left Google confused about the possibility of forthcoming—and unanticipated—federal guidelines on autonomous vehicles, a possibility that turned out to be a misunderstanding. Medford, still with NHTSA at the time, registered disappointment with Google for having received a call from the company’s lawyers. “We shouldn’t have this kind of confusion since we are direct and honest with each other,” he wrote. Chris Urmson, who was then the head of Google’s Self-Driving Car Project, replied: “Without a strong partnership, we don’t believe it will be possible to realize the vision we both share for self-driving technology. We’ll continue to be open and transparent with you and NHTSA. Please continue to let us know if an interaction strikes you as anything less than this, and we’ll work hard to fix it.”
Avoiding conflicts in this realm is surprisingly easy, one federal Transportation official told me, despite the revolving door between government and industry. “You need to make sure that you don’t just get sucked into old relationships,” he said. “For NHTSA, they have a very clear mission: It’s safety. So you don’t have a conflicting mission you’re working with. It’s easy to cut through any of the distractions.”
That seems to be the message from several corporate stakeholders—including Google, Uber, Volvo, Lyft, and Ford—which are jointly lobbying for self-driving cars under the umbrella of the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets. Despite ostensibly fierce competition among these companies, it seems likely that when new federal guidelines emerge, manufacturers will find themselves to be more at odds with the federal government than they are with one another. Of course, that will depend on what NHTSA’s guidelines say.
“The issue here is not that the industry is against federal regulation, but rather that the traditional regulatory process takes anywhere from five to 10 years,” said David Strickland, the coalition’s spokesman and lead counsel—and a former NHTSA administrator. “A decade is way too long to wait as the technology develops and improves in a handful of months.”
Strickland’s concern, he says, is that the typical way of establishing policy will “paralyze the marketplace and hamper testing and deployment.” It remains to be seen which regulatory bodies—and at what levels of government—will be most involved in oversight of self-driving vehicles. Regulators will need to understand the basics of existing transportation laws like vehicle standards and road operation, as well as grasp the implications of having machine-driven cars that rely on advanced sensors and sophisticated software. “There currently are no regulatory bodies that carry such a full suite of expertise,” said Justin Kintz, a spokesman for Uber.
The “early consensus” of whether federal, state, or local agencies ought to handle oversight, he says, “seems to be pointing toward federal oversight, given the interstate nature of transportation.”
* This article originally misstated that Google is testing its self-driving cars in three states. We regret the error.