Consumer Watchdog warned that the revolving door of government agencies being hired by automotive companies at high salaries, could risk the safety of Americans. Today, the consumer group noted that he credibility of autonomous vehicle policy issued last year by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was completely undermined when former NHTSA chief Mark Rosekind announced he has taken a job with robot car developer Zoox.
Consumer Watchdog called on the Senate to refuse to confirm the next nominee for NHTSA administrator unless the nominee pledges not to work as an employee or consultant to the auto industry or developers of self-driving car technology for at least seven years after leaving the position.
NHTSA’s Federal Automated Vehicles Policy was issued last September. A key provision is a voluntary 15-point safety assessment, instead of enforceable regulations including new Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards consumer advocates have called for before companies are allowed to deploy autonomous cars on public roads.
Last May, Consumer Watchdog called on Rosekind and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to “slam the revolving door” and pledge not to work as an employee or consultant to developers of self-driving autonomous vehicles for at least seven years after leaving their respective positions. They refused.
After their refusal, Consumer Watchdog, Consumers for Auto Reliability, the Center for Auto Safety and former NHTSA Administrator Joan Claybrook in July called on President Obama to ask Foxx and Rosekind to make the pledge. He did not.
Consumer Watchdog said the ongoing revolving door between top NHTSA staffers and the auto industry they supposedly regulate is not only unseemly and unethical, but fundamentally undermines public trust in the agency’s rules and regulations.
Zoox is a relatively secretive Silicon Valley company developing autonomous self-driving technology. It is one of 27 companies that have permits from the California Department of Motor Vehicles to test robot cars on public roads.
“It’s simply outrageous that companies using our public streets as their private laboratories are playing by rules crafted by people who end up working for them,” said Simpson. “Who is protecting our safety?”
Rosekind’s job at Zoox will be to lead the company’s efforts to “safely develop, test and deploy autonomous vehicles,” the company said. He is not the first Obama Administration top NHTSA staffer to join the industry the agency supposedly regulates.
General Motors hired NHTSA’s chief counsel, Paul Hemmersbaugh, in January to serve as policy director with a focus on “transportation as a service.” Hemmersbaugh’s resume describes him as the principal author of the NHTSA federal automated vehicles policy, according to Reuters.
“Selling out to industry for a well-paying job has become standard operating procedure and benefit for top NHTSA employees. NHTSA is like a job fair for the automakers,” said Simpson.
Consumer Watchdog’s call to Rosekind and Foxx to end the revolving door was made 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 Waymo, Google’s self-driving car company. 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.
“This ongoing abuse has got to end,” said Simpson. “If the public is to have any trust in government rules, the regulators simply cannot go to work for the companies they once regulated.”