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The US government’s self-driving car council has fallen apart under Trump

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao (R) looks on as President Donald Trump speaks following a meeting on infrastructure at Trump Tower, August 15, 2017 in New York City.
Getty Images
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao (R) looks on as President Donald Trump speaks following a meeting on infrastructure at Trump Tower, August 15, 2017 in New York City.

Appearing at a gathering of U.S. governors this February, the Trump administration's top transportation official pledged she would work swiftly to help put more self-driving cars on the country's roads.

"There's a lot at stake in getting this technology right," Secretary Elaine Chao stressed at the time.

Six months later, however, the Trump administration has essentially pumped the brakes on some efforts to advance technology that could redefine how Americans travel, reduce traffic congestion and save lives.

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As tech and auto giants forge ahead in testing and developing driverless vehicles, the U.S. government is still lacking a number of key safety regulators to oversee and study the nascent industry. Meanwhile, a key federal advisory board focused on driverless-car technology — a committee comprised of top executives from Apple, Ford, GM, Lyft and other tech and auto giants — has fallen entirely inactive, four sources told Recode.

The so-called Federal Committee on Automation held its first meeting on Jan. 16, days before former President Barack Obama left office. Since then, though, the group led by Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors, and Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles, hasn't met once, the sources said.

A spokesman for Lyft said the company's president, John Zimmer, actually resigned his seat at the table "a while back." That happened before a score of business leaders fled two White House-backed corporate advisory boards, citing Trump's controversial comments about a neo-Nazi demonstration in Charlottesville, Va.

A spokeswoman for Google-owned Waymo, meanwhile, said they believe the Obama-era task force is not active under Trump.

And a spokesman for the Department of Transportation said in July the agency was "still reviewing its options for how best to utilize the Committee going forward and on what specific scope the Committee should focus."

In follow-up emails this week, the aide referred Recode back to the DOT's previous comments.

On one hand, the slow lane for self-driving cars isn't totally unexpected, as the Trump administration continues to chart its course in major transportation policy debates and decides which federal programs to keep or replace.

But the snail's pace of its policymaking efforts stands in stark contrast to the all-out blitz on Capitol Hill. Last month, a committee of House lawmakers advanced a bill that would help companies like GM and Google seek more exemptions to federal safety rules, perhaps allowing them the ability to test as many as 100,000 experimental self-driving cars in the United States. The Senate is working on a similar measure.

And that's where some of the Trump administration's troubles began.

As the House debated its legislation, starting in June, they had to do so without first fielding testimony from the U.S. government's leading transportation watchdog, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That's because Trump had not nominated anyone to the post at the time — and still, in late August, the president has failed to select a candidate.

In the end, the NHTSA is sure to have the primary responsibility of implementing any bill passed by Congress. To that end, its absence from hearings initially rattled some Democrats, who later voted to advance the self-driving car bill anyway. "We should not be moving bills out of the committee until we hear from the administration," said New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone earlier this year.

Consumer safety advocates are skeptical, too. Lacking a leader, "it's hard for me to be optimistic or pessimistic because I don't know if they're going to open the floodgates and take a lot of risks to rush the technology out — or if they're going to take a reasonable, rational pathway to protecting people," said David Friedman, director of cars and product policy and analysis at Consumers Union.

Friedman previously served as acting NHTSA administrator under Obama. At the time, he said in an interview that the NHTSA "made clear they were going to use their enforcement tools to the full extent" in cases in which automakers failed to protect drivers and passengers' safety." With Trump, though, the headless watchdog agency's approach isn't yet clear.

Other, similar federal jobs remain unfilled — including the third-most powerful position at the Department of Transportation.

In April, Trump tapped Derek Kan, a general manager at Lyft, for that crucial policy post. Kan knows federal transportation law, dating back to his work advising Amtrak, and politically he has ties to his soon-to-be boss, Chao, and her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Taken together, Kan had been regarded as a shoo-in for the role. But the Lyft leader still hasn't been confirmed by the Senate, despite the support of tech and auto giants who hope he'll be their voice on self-driving car policy — someday.

Veterans of government say it still has plenty of career employees on staff to regulate a challenging industry like autonomous vehicles. "Work doesn't stop at NHTSA," said David Strickland, the agency's chief under Obama, who now lobbies on behalf of Ford, Google, Uber and other self-driving car companies.

If anything, Strickland told Recode, he is heartened by Chao's commitments — including her February speech to governors earlier this year — in which she pledged to update the federal government's current voluntary safety standards.

"Hopefully, we'll see updated guidance soon," Strickland said.

Issued in September 2016 under Obama, the guidance recommends — but doesn't require — the likes of Ford, Google and Uber to submit to safety checks and turn over more data, including crashes and other incidents, to the federal government for review. For her part, Chao entered the Department of Transportation pledging to revise the self-driving car blueprint. She's expected to announce her plans in September, according to a government source familiar with the process.

To Friedman, the existing standards already give "industry a fair amount of opportunity to run forward." But the Trump administration has said little about its preferred approach, a silence that's stoked speculation.

"That's the risk here, right: Instead of just running forward, what this administration could do is enable them to leap forward without looking," he said.

CNBC's parent NBCUniversal is an investor in Recode's parent Vox, and the companies have a content-sharing arrangement.