The standing joke in Washington is that if there's something called, say, Americans for Clean Water, it's probably a front group for industries that pollute the water.
So it's not too surprising that a new group called the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets is made up of Ford, Volvo, Google, Uber, and Lyft, all eager to get driverless cars rolling down the nation's highways and byways.
The companies say they want "to work with lawmakers, regulators, and the public to realize the safety and societal benefits of self-driving vehicles."
Heading this supposed safety-first group is none other than David Strickland, former head of the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). He is perhaps best known for helping cut the secret deal between the NHTSA and Chrysler that recalled millions of fire-prone Jeep Cherokees blamed for nearly 300 deaths, a recall derided by critics as one of the most ineffective ever.
"This is the recall that Chrysler never wanted to do and will never do right. As far as Fiat-Chrysler is concerned Jeeps can continue to crash and burn until they are all off the road," Center for Auto Safety director Clarence Ditlow said recently in a letter to Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx and current NHTSA head Mark Rosekind.
Strickland, you may recall, "retired" from the NHTSA a short time after the deal was worked out in a meeting room at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport in 2014, following Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood out of "public service" and into the lucrative world of log-rolling and public affairs.
Cut off California
The goal of the coalition, it says, is to have a single set of federal rules covering self-driving cars. In other words, it wants to short-circuit a California rule that would require driverless cars to, at the very least, have a brake pedal and steering wheel so that a human being could take over in the event the self-driving system goes whacko.
California also requires that a licensed driver be in the car while it is rolling down the road, a provision tat Uber and Lyft are thought to despise.
"The best path for this innovation is to have one clear set of federal standards and the coalition will work with policymakers to find the right solutions that will facilitate the deployment of self-driving vehicles," said Strickland.
Strickland joined the D.C. legal powerhouse Venable, which public records indicate had billed Chrysler $1.1 million for lobbying services in recent years. Federal law requires most top executive branch officials to wait two years before they can lobby their old agency, a measure that then-Sen. Barack Obama called "the most sweeping ethics reform since Watergate" when it was enacted during the Bush Administration.
The NHTSA, meanwhile, is expected to release its self-driving recommendations to states, policymakers, and companies in July, presumably with prodding from Strickland's group.