Google, which is currently the tech industry’s biggest lobbyist, is now rallying support for self-driving cars. Google announced it would team with ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft, along with Ford and Volvo, to lobby Congress and state legislatures to fast-track autonomous cars. The effort is the first of its kind by automakers and tech companies who have invested heavily in the concept of self-driving.
Although Lyft and Uber are rivals, this isn’t the first time they have united to battle regulators. In 2014, the companies came together to lobby against a proposed rule in New York City that would have made it more difficult for drivers to work for more than one firm. The effort was yet another attempt by the taxi and limousine industry to stop the advance of ride-sharing firms.
The five companies have formed the “Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets,” a formal lobby group that will will work on convincing lawmakers that the safest future for automobiles relies heavily on self-driving technology. The companies have felt somewhat hampered by the testing and safety requirements they face in America, which requires a high number of hours and miles of testing. The first goal of the coalition will be to convince the government that self-driving cars actually would require fewer regulations, rather than more.
The coalition has hired a heavy hitter in David Strickland, the former head of the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). This follows the pattern of other lobbying groups, which bring on corporate counsel with connections in very high places. Strickland has been working at a lobbying firm since he left government work in 2014.
The NHTSA is already engaged in writing new regulations that will make it easier for self-driving cars to get on the streets faster. The agency has been active in part because of the difficulty automakers and tech companies face with state laws, which are not uniform in their regulations. If the federal government takes a stronger hand in crafting standard laws specific to autonomous vehicles, state legislatures will probably follow suit.
However the NHTSA is still a government regulator with plenty of regulation to write in this arena, which is why the lobbying firm will intervene. Their goals will include keeping regulations at a minimum. Google is already a leader in US lobbying, having spent $3.8 million in three months of 2016 alone. Uber and Lyft have only spent $320,000 and $20,000, respectively, which means this is their first time playing with the big boys. Ford has spent $1.2 million in 2015 and Volvo just $170,000 in the US.
Although Google has been relatively coy about its ultimate plans for the auto space, it has been testing autonomous cars for more than a year. By forming a lobbying group, Google leaves no doubt about its seriousness in the industry. Google had a public embarrassment in California when one of its cars caused an accident because it did not leave enough room to get past a dump truck. The company was also stung when California refused to remove its safety requirement that all cars have a steering wheel. Uber has already researched self-driving technologies and like Lyft, could make even more money if its cars no longer needed drivers.
Of course, all of this assumes that consumers will want autonomous cars. Early ambivalence about the technologies has cast some doubts on the process, doubts which the new lobbying group will surely start to address in public campaigns.