The Trump administration quietly terminated an Obama-era federal committee on automation in transportation earlier this year, the Department of Transportation confirmed to The Verge this week. What’s more, the DOT never informed some members that the advisory group didn’t exist anymore, including Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, Zipcar founder Robin Chase, Apple vice president Lisa Jackson, and even the committee’s own vice chair, The Verge has learned.
The committee’s dissolution comes at a critical moment in the development of automated vehicles in the United States. During the two-plus years that it sat dormant, multiple companies have rolled out small commercial fleets of automated vehicles that perform a variety of tasks. Big money is pouring into some of the most visible companies in the space. And there’s been a human cost, too: one of Uber’s prototype autonomous vehicles killed a pedestrian in Arizona in 2018, and at least two people were killed while using Tesla’s Autopilot suite of driver assistance systems.
The Advisory Committee on Automation in Transportation was announced in early January 2017 as part of Barack Obama’s larger federal automated vehicle policy. It consisted of an all-star cast of 25 executives, professors, and politicians from across (and even outside) the transportation world, like General Motors CEO Mary Barra, Waymo CEO John Krafcik, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Lyft co-founder John Zimmer, and oft-cited industry experts like Duke’s Mary “Missy” Cummings, and the University of South Carolina’s Bryant Walker Smith. Some have continued to give interviews under the banner of the group, while at least one still mentions it as a current position on their LinkedIn profile.
The group was brought together “to serve as a critical resource for the Department [of Transportation] in framing federal policy for the continued development and deployment of automated transportation,” according to its landing page on the DOT’s website.
The committee held its lone meeting on January 16th, 2017, four days before Trump’s inauguration. The DOT never called the committee to meet again, and the press release detailing it was scrubbed from the DOT’s website sometime around April of this year, according to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.
J. Christian Gerdes, the director of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford University, was the vice chair of the committee (as well as the DOT’s former chief innovation officer). Gerdes said in an email to The Verge that he was not told the committee had been terminated. “My interpretation was that the Advisory Committee was not a mechanism that the current Administration chose to use but I did not receive any communication to that effect,” he said.
“It was a talented board,” Cummings said in an interview with The Verge, before being informed that it was terminated. “It’s actually egregious, because this board does not have a political leaning. If anything, the board has been pro industry.”
“Advisory committees are helpful for candor, credibility, and collaboration within a transparent structure,” Smith said in an email to The Verge. He said, during that introductory meeting in 2017, that he hoped to use his position on the committee to focus attention on the “less sexy” technologies involved in automation, like simulation, validation, and verification.
Zipcar founder Robin Chase said in a message to The Verge that she also wasn’t contacted beyond the first meeting. “This committee only met once immediately before Trump took the oath of office. Since then, there has been no communication of any type,” Chase said, adding that she hoped to use her position on the committee to “get ahead of issues and opportunities presented” by autonomous vehicles.
Robert Reich, the Carmel P. Friesen professor of public policy at UC Berkeley, also said via email he was “never contacted” by the DOT. A spokesperson for Apple confirmed that Jackson was not informed as well, as did the executive assistant for Captain Sullenberger.
The group was spun up by Barack Obama’s transportation secretary Anthony Foxx, under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) of 1972. Charters for these committees typically expire after two years. But they can be extended, and the members were all appointed for four years, with end dates of January 6th, 2021, according to the government’s FACA database.
A DOT spokesperson told The Verge that FACA committees can cost around $200,000 per year when accounting for travel and per diem costs. That said, filings in the government database show the transportation group incurred total costs of $41,244 — $40,000 of that went to the payment of federal staff who supported the committee, while just $1,244 went to travel costs.
The DOT told The Verge it decided to instead focus on issuing public notices, and take comment on potential rule-makings, part of a more hands-off, pro-business approach that goes even further than how the Obama administration treated automated vehicles.
The Trump administration has distanced itself from many policies implemented by the previous administration, and the DOT referenced the rewrite of Obama-era guidance on automated vehicles in an explanation for why it dissolved the committee. “Based on USDOT’s development and publication of AV 3.0 policies and principles, active stakeholder engagement is already underway. Therefore the USDOT does have the ability to obtain broad stakeholder feedback on AV matters outside of the committee,” the justification for the termination reads.
Some members told The Verge they believe Trump’s DOT never gave the committee a chance. “They basically pretended it didn’t exist,” said one member, who was granted anonymity so they could speak freely about their position. Eventually, they said, “it just sort of died.”
“I thought it could’ve been a really interesting group. It had major corporate interest, and I thought people’s comments at the first meeting really provided a good foundation,” this person said. “It’s frustrating, because there’s a lot going on in this arena, and there could be a positive outcome from this diverse set of people. If you just leave it up to the tech industry to make good decisions, they often won’t. If you leave it to the states, the bar will be set at different levels. Regulators need to know: Can our infrastructure handle it? Is this something the public wants? And if so, how will they want it?”
The least the DOT could have done, though, this person said, was to inform the members of what happened. “You had a lot of busy, important people who deserved a phone call,” they said.
Cummings said it felt like the committee spent the last two years in a “no man’s land,” and views it as a lost opportunity. “Why aren’t we being used to look across the industry and make recommendations for safety? It would be an ideal application of this board,” she said.
Not all 25 committee members were caught off guard, exactly. Henry Claypool, who calls himself a “habitual public servant,” said he wasn’t surprised when the group didn’t meet again. “Reading the tea leaves, I saw this being quite difficult to justify to the [White House’s Office of Management and Budget],” he said.
Claypool said he was “eager to meet” with the group, but knew that it was “just a platform,” and that ultimately the transportation industry will have to take decisive action to accomplish the goals he’s pursued as a technology policy consultant to the American Association of People with Disabilities. That’s why he doesn’t mind the more direct approach that the DOT has taken with companies working in the space, he said.
Jack Weekes, who was the vice president of State Farm Insurance’s innovation team at the time of his appointment, said he was told the committee was scuppered via “informal outreach from a former committee official.” Weekes said the news was “disappointing, though not unexpected given the change in administrations.”
“[A]utomation in transportation technology (e.g. driverless cars, drones) has great potential, yet poses new risks at the same time,” Weekes said in a message to The Verge. “It makes sense for organizations with shared interests, including regulators, to work together as appropriate to develop technology that is effective and safe for all concerned. The committee could have been conducive to that general goal.”
Chris Spear, president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations, also said via email that he was “aware this advisory committee had ended — as had others that were stood up under the previous administration.”
Adrian Durbin, Lyft’s director of policy communications, declined to comment on behalf of Zimmer and Foxx (who has since taken a position with the ride-hailing company). Barra, Krafcik, Garcetti, Sullenberger, and the rest of the committee members did not immediately respond to requests for comment sent directly or through representatives.