PhotoGoogle is determined to get its self-driving cars on the road and doesn't want any roadblocks being erected by the states, so today it will ask Congress to give federal regulators the authority to override state wishes, billing it as a safety measure.

"We propose that Congress move swiftly to provide the secretary of transportation with new authority to approve lifesaving safety innovations," says Google self-driving czar Chris Urmson in remarks prepared for testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee.

"This new authority would permit the deployment of innovative safety technologies that meet or exceed the level of safety required by existing federal standards, while ensuring a prompt and transparent process," Urmson argues.

But not everyone sees it that way. 

“Rushing new technology to the roads will leave safety by the wayside and put drivers at risk. Federal regulators have a process for writing rules to keep the public safe, and Congress shouldn’t skirt those rules just because tech industry giants like Google ask them to. Speed is not a friend to safety,” said John M. Simpson of Consumer Watchdog, a non-profit advocacy group based in Santa Monica, Calif.

California DMV

In fact, it's California that is currently tying up Google's plans. The state DMV wants a licensed driver at the wheel of every autonomous vehicle, ready and able to take control if there's a misfunction.

California-based Google and other companies racing to get their autonomous autos on the street say they can't be bothered dealing with individual rules in each state, even though carmakers for decades have installed tougher emissions control equipment in California cars to comply with the state's tougher clean air laws.

Consumer Watchdog said that Google’s own test results demonstrate the need for a driver who can intervene.  A required report filed with the DMV showed the self-driving robot car technology failed 341 times during the reporting period.  The self-driving technology could not cope and turned over control 272 times, while the test driver felt compelled to intervene 69 times.

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said in January that it might be willing to waive some vehicle safety rules to mollify the driverless car lobby but has since conceded that there are serious legal issues in allowing cars without streering wheels or other control devices.

The NHTSA is in the process of writing rules for driverless cars and has said it will be done in six months. The agency is not exactly famous for meeting deadlines, however, and there is some skepticism that it will accomplish much between now and autumn.

Bad timing

It's not helping matters that the latest scrape involving a self-driving car occurred Feb. 14 when a Google car and a bus rubbed shoulders. There were no injuries and only minor damage, but the timing was unfortunate.

“Given the current state of robot car technology, it’s clear that there should be a driver behind a steering wheel and brake pedal capable of taking control when necessary,” said Consumer Watchdog's Simpson.

Consumer Watchdog and several other groups are calling on the Department of Transportation to hold public -- not secret, closed-door --  meetings to discuss the NHTSA's forthcoming rules and to take testimony from citizens and organizations.

The organizations, including Consumers Union, the Center for Auto Safety, Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, and former NHTSA Administrator and Public Citizen President Emeritus Joan Claybrook made the request in a recent letter to Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx.  

Lawyered up

David Strickland

The consumer groups are facing a well-funded Google lobbying effort, however. 

None other than David Strickland has been speaking out lately on Google's behalf. He was the chief NHTSA administrator at the time of the notorious secret O'Hare Airport meeting that resulted in the much-reviled deal involving fire-prone Jeep Cherokees. He and Ray LaHood, former Transportation Secretary, both resigned shortly after the deal and are now laboring in the vineyards of the Washington influence, lobbying, and "public affairs" business.

Of course, federal officials can't go to work as lobbyists immediately after leaving the public payroll so Strickland's current job description is attorney at the law firm Venable, a venerable player in the D.C. influence field. 

In recent remarks, Strickland has described the self-driving car debate not as a safety matter but as a "speed issue," eerily echoing Simpson's remarks but inverting their meaning. 

"Without clarity from Congress, self-driving cars may still find a place on U.S. roads, but "it will just take a really, really long time," Strickland said, Politico reported.

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