Campaign for Accountability, a nonprofit ethics watchdog group, has released a report suggesting that Google's self-driving car program has benefited from the company's close relationship with officials at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The report stops short of suggesting any impropriety in the relationship but makes clear that Google used its relationships with key officials to make a case for its vision for autonomous vehicles at the highest levels of government.
The Campaign for Accountability report is based on more than 1,000 pages of emails between Google, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The nonprofit obtained the emails through an open records request, said The Atlantic, which was the first to report on Campaign for Accountability's findings after reviewing the emails independently.
Separately, the nonprofit published a detailed summary of its findings on the Google Transparency Project website. In it, Campaign for Accountability claimed that the emails it obtained show a close working relationship between Google, the White House and the NHTSA over the last five years. Google has met with officials from both entities dozens of times and exchanged hundreds of emails to help shape policy on self-driving cars, the watchdog group claimed. "In particular, Google worked hand-in-hand with the administration to influence autonomous vehicle legislation in states such as California, Hawaii, and Florida," the report noted.
In a statement, Google defended its meetings with government officials. "Thousands of people die on roads around the world every single day, so in order to bring this lifesaving technology to the world quickly, we will need to collaborate with many groups, including safety advocates, disability groups, regulators and public officials" the statement said. "This technology has progressed by leaps and bounds over the last few years, and we've kept public officials updated on our project so they have the information and technical expertise to develop policies that will bring this lifesaving technology to the world."
Google's self-driving car project, now a part of Alphabet, Google's parent company, is among Google's more ambitious initiatives in recent years. Under the effort, the company is developing what it hopes will eventually be a new generation of fully autonomous vehicles. Google has carried out extensive testing of its technology in multiple cities using a fleet of modified conventional vehicles as well as fully autonomous vehicles it has developed from scratch.
Google has said it hopes to have its self-driving vehicles on U.S. roads as early as 2020. Initially at least, the vehicles are expected to be used in areas such as airport and campus transportation. The company is also reportedly planning on launching a ridesharing service similar to Uber's, using a fleet of autonomous vehicles.
According to Campaign for Accountability, the emails it has reviewed suggest that Google's efforts in meeting these goals are being bolstered by its close relationship with White House and government officials.
Among other things, the watchdog group alleged that the emails show Google's input helped influence autonomous vehicle legislation in multiple states and also federal guidelines pertaining to driverless cars.
Campaign for Accountability's report recounts several meetings, including confidential and proprietary ones that Google officials had with the government, which suggest Google was trying to lobby officials about rules that would have hindered its plans. It also highlighted several instances where Google officials left the company to take up influential positions in the government and where senior NHTSA officials left the government to work for Google or its affiliates.
This is not the first report to suggest that Google is leveraging a cozy relationship with the White House to push its agenda on various fronts. Last year, the Wall Street Journal alleged that the company's influence in the government helped it avoid a federal antitrust investigation a few years ago.
Google rebuffed those allegations and accused the Journal of publishing an inaccurate and misleading article. The company claimed that the numerous meetings that the Journal had cited in its report were nothing more than routine meetings to discuss matters such as patent reform and technology education. Several of the 230 meetings referenced in the Journal's report were advertising industry briefings that Google attended with other technology companies while many others were by individuals who were no longer at the company when they visited the White House, Google claimed.