Robotics & Automation News

Market trends and business perspectives

President Barack Obama appoints GM CEO Mary Barra to advisory panel on self-driving cars

General Motors CEO Mary Barra.
General Motors CEO Mary Barra

US President Barack Obama has appointed General Motors chief executive Mary Barra to a newly created advisory committee on self-driving cars, and critics are already saying she should be the first person to whom the incoming president, Donald Trump, should say: “You’re fired.” 

Consumer advocates called on President-elect Donald Trump to make Barra his first firing and remove her as co-chairman of the newly created Department of Transportation Advisory Committee on Automation in Transportation.

In a letter to Trump, Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, John Simpson, the group’s privacy project director, and Joan Claybrook, chair of Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways, wrote: “As you know, robot cars, trucks, drones and other technology threaten to replace tens of millions of American jobs, pose a danger to the safety of our roads and public spaces, and come with significant privacy and security threats.

“We should not allow the robot makers alone to oversee the safety of vehicles coming out of robot factories, but the Obama Administration’s eleventh hour appointments do just that.” 

uber self-driving car
Uber says it will continue its self-driving car tests in San Francisco despite an order from the California Department of Motor Vehicles for them to stop

Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx announced formation of the 25-member Advisory Committee on Automation in Transportation on Wednesday. The first meeting is scheduled for Monday. Thirteen of the members represent companies; more come from industry trade associations.

“In keeping with your campaign pledge to ‘drain the swamp’ and protect the interests of ordinary people, we ask that the first firing of your Administration be co-chair Mary Barra, General Motors Chairman and CEO, who should not lead a panel recommending how to deploy her company’s automated vehicles,” the letter said.

“We are also appalled that not a single consumer, citizen or auto safety survivor’s group sits on this industry-dominated panel and ask that you restructure the rest of this advisory committee so it includes members of consumer advocacy groups and true representatives of the public interest.”

The letter explained how Uber recently refused to obtain required permits from the state Department of Motor Vehicles as 20 other companies had done to test its robot cars in San Francisco and moved them to Arizona. The company appeared to do so to avoid mandatory reporting of accidents and problems encountered by the technology, as DMV permits require.

“When Uber’s robot cars were introduced in San Francisco they were seen blasting through red lights. What meaningful advice can the renegade company’s Rachel Holt, regional general manager, possibly contribute to the Department of Transportation?” the letter asked.

“Autonomous vehicles may offer benefits in the future, but it is imperative that any testing on public highways be done in a completely transparent way to ensure the public’s safety is protected,” the letter said. “Consumer Watchdog cannot fathom how a committee dominated by companies and trade associations will advocate for safety when doing so might cost money however minimal.”

The advocates noted that at a news conference Wednesday Trump warned about the dangers of hacking and said that he was asking for a report recommending necessary defensive measures the United States should take. Autonomous vehicles will offer troves of personal data with little attention so far being paid to protecting it, the advocates said.

“They also pose a serious terrorist threat if they can be hacked,” the advocates wrote. “How to develop measures and required standards to protect the privacy and security of data gathered by autonomous vehicles, as well as the vehicles themselves, is precisely the sort of advice the ACAT should be providing.

“However, the companies pushing to market and sell robot cars on us have shown little willingness to protect our data. Google executives, for instance, refused to agree to use data gathered by an autonomous vehicle only for navigating the robot car, not for other purposes.”

The advocates’ letter concluded: “The failure to name any member of a consumer group to ACAT, when more than half the members come from companies with a vested interest in automated technology must be corrected immediately.

“Ultimately it’s likely to backfire, calling into question the validity of the advice the group offers and potentially setting back the development of this technology for years. Consumer Watchdog calls on you to act immediately, and fire those who don’t belong on this important advisory committee, beginning with its chair, Ms Barra, whose fealty to advancing American jobs is certainly a big question mark.”