Slam Shut Revolving Door Between Robot-car Companies and NHTSA Officials

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Advocacy organization Consumer Watchdog put forth a request to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind on May 18. The group’s request: slam shut revolving door between robot-car companies and NHTSA officials. Consumer Watchdog wants a written commitment that neither transportation bigwig will take a job for or work as a consultant to any company developing self-driving cars for at least seven years following their departure from their current posts.

John M. Simpson, Director of Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project wrote the letter, which reads in part:

“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.”

Why the concern?

Google now employs or gets consulting and lobbying services from at least four former high-rollers at NHTSA:

  • Former NHTSA Administrator David L. Strickland serves as spokesman and counsel for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets (a group made up of Ford, Volvo, Lyft, Uber and Google);
  • Chan Lieu, NHTSA’s former Director of Government Affairs, Policy and Strategic Planning joined Strickland at Venable, LLP where he now lobbies for Google;
  • Daniel Smith, formerly in charge of NHTSA’s Office of Vehicle Safety also consults for Google;
  • Former Deputy Director of NHTSA, Ron Medford, is now the Director of Safety for Google’s self-driving car project.

Furthering the group’s concern is the fact that both Rosekind and Foxx have been pushing for rapid deployment of self-driving vehicle technology. In December 2015, NHTSA said that the driver of “driverless” vehicles would actually be the technology itself. The next month, Foxx stated that NHTSA’s self-driving vehicle policy would be updated in the next six months. He also encouraged makers of robot cars to submit requests to use NHTSA’s exemption authority to speed the deployment of the fully autonomous vehicles.

Given the history of former NHTSA higher-ups becoming members of the robot car industry after leaving the agency, one is forced to wonder if the actions they took (and are taking) better serve the public or their future career plans. It’s doubtful that anyone in government is going to self-police this issue. One need only look to the FDA to see that.

Cindy Domecus served on the Obstetrics and Gynecology Device Panel of the Medical Device Advisory Committee for the FDA from March 1995 to January 2001 while she was also the Senior Vice-President of Clinical Research and Regulatory Affairs at Conceptus from May 1994- December 2003. Her time at Conceptus was spent, in part, developing the controversial Essure “permanent” birth control device, which she also helped get FDA approved.

Conflict of interest, anyone? Not according to anyone at the FDA or any other agency. Therefore, we must rely on organizations, such as Consumer Watchdog, to bring these issues to the public’s attention.

The full text of Consumer Watchdog’s letter can be read here.


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