Google Enlisted Obama Officials To Lobby States On Driverless Cars by Campaign For Accountability

Six Department of Transportation Officials in Google’s Revolving Door

Internal emails and government records show Google used its influence in the Obama administration to push its vision for self-driving cars, enlisting White House officials and federal regulators to lobby state officials about rules that might have hindered its business plans.

The company found a willing partner in the White House and federal road safety regulators, who lobbied state officials about Google’s preferred policies and issued legal advice supporting its positions. At one point, the White House technology advisor charged with developing policy on self-driving cars, R. David Edelman, simply asked Google to send its policy priorities for “us government types”.

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Over the past five years, Google has worked closely with senior officials from the White House and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), meeting dozens of times and exchanging hundreds of emails to shape policy on self-driving cars. In particular, Google worked hand-in-hand with the administration to influence autonomous vehicle legislation in states such as California, Hawaii, and Florida.

On several occasions, Google gave administration officials the names of individual state officials to meet.

The string of contacts set the stage for a series of major policy wins for Google as it vied with global automakers to be the first to put driverless cars on the roads. In October 2015, the White House announced it was doubling its spending on autonomous vehicles. Federal safety regulators ruled in February 2016 that cars had no need for a human driver, in what was seen as a legal breakthrough for Google’s self-driving car.

And in January 2016, the White House announced plans to spend nearly $4 billion over the next decade to speed acceptance of self-driving cars on U.S. roads.

However, some critics have charged that the Obama administration is moving too quickly to get autonomous vehicles on the road before enforceable safety standards are in place. In a recent letter, a coalition of auto safety advocates, including a former NHTSA administrator, wrote the administration was moving with “undue haste” to change the rules before the technology was ready, pointing to the crash of a Tesla car on autopilot.

Self-driving cars represent a key bet by Google parent company Alphabet Inc. to expand beyond its core search advertising business, which still accounts for virtually all of its revenue. The sector could be worth billions of dollars annually for the company that establishes a lead. Given their different approaches, the kind of regulation adopted by the government could help decide who that is.

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White House Gets Involved

NHTSA officials and Google executives continued meeting on driverless car policy issues throughout 2012, while the White House turned its attention to autonomous vehicles in early 2013.

On January 28, 2013, White House internet advisor David Edelman reached out to Google lobbyist Johanna Shelton for a briefing on self-driving cars according to emails.

Edelman, who noted that he would be in charge of “writing policy” on self-driving cars, was introduced to Google lobbyist Charlie Hale who arranged for him to visit with Google’s self-driving car team in Mountain View four days later, on February 1, 2013.

On April 14, 2013, Edelman emailed Google’s Urmson that he was pulling together his internal team to move to the “next phase of consideration on self-driving cars” and suggested a conference call to get Google’s “top priorities for the likes of us government-types.”

Less than a month later, on May 10, 2013, Google executives participated in a Google Hangout with White House deputy director for technology Tom Kalil to discuss Google self-driving cars and other policy priorities according to the emails.

Read the rest of the story at the Google Transparency Project.

Timeline of Events

Click on the arrows for details and links to source documents