For automobile companies that invest heavily in developing autonomous driving technology, the biggest hurdle to turning driverless cars into reality, other than training the robots “sitting” behind the wheel, is arguably convincing lawmakers to allow these driverless cars on public roads. Their hope just got dimmer, unfortunately, as new reports have revealed that the Trump administration has quietly dismissed an Obama-era federal advisory group on autonomous vehicles.
The group in question was the Advisory Committee on Automation in Transportation (ACAT), formed in the final year of Barack Obama’s presidency. It consisted of 25 members coming from various branches of the transportation world, including General Motors CEO Mary Barra, Duke University’s auto industry expert Mary Cummings and Apple’s environment, policy and social initiatives head Lisa Jackson, to advise the Department of Transportation (DOT) in drafting federal policies around new deployment of automated transportation.
The committee met once in January 2017 and has remained dormant since then. Last week the DOT confirmed to The Verge that the advisory group was terminated sometime in April of this year. Per the publication, the DOT never informed any of the committee’s members about the dismissal, including the committee’s vice chair J. Christian Gerdes, director of Stanford University’s Center for Automotive Research.
“It was a talented board,” Duke University’s Cummings told The Verge in an interview about the group’s termination. “It’s actually egregious, because this board does not have a political leaning. If anything, the board has been pro industry.”
“[The government administration] basically pretended it didn’t exist. It just sort of died,” said another committee member who asked to remain anonymous.
The DOT argued that it was too expensive to maintain the committee and organize regular meetings, so it decided to opt for a more hands-off approach that focuses on issuing public notices and taking public comments on potential policy making. The department reasoned that this approach would be more effective than how the Obama administration treated automated transportation.
President Donald Trump is reportedly not a fan of self-driving cars. In March, Axios reported that he had privately told friends during a golf trip that “I would never get in a self-driving car… I don’t trust some computer to drive me around.”
“It seems very strange,” he said of self-driving vehicles during his state visit to Japan in May, “when you look over and there’s nobody sitting behind the car going 60 miles an hour.”
The same sentiment is felt by the majority of Americans as well. A poll by AAA last year found that 73 percent of Americans would refuse to ride in a fully autonomous vehicle.