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Meet the self-driving car industry’s most important lobbyist

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David Strickland is doing it for his grandma

On Tuesday, the self-driving car industry introduced itself to the world. Five companies —€” Ford, Google, Uber, Lyft, and Volvo —€” announced the formation of the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, a lobbying and advocacy group. The industry's public face is David Strickland, a lawyer by training who attended Harvard at the same time as Barack Obama, and was later the president's pick to lead the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In an interview, Strickland says he got involved in the group to promote improved mobility for people who lack it.

David Strickland

Previously, companies involved in developing self-driving technology had tried to influence policymaking in Washington through a piecemeal approach, with individual companies testifying at congressional hearings and their messages sometimes overlapping or duplicating one another. Strickland represents an attempt to consolidate and refine that approach.

While at NHTSA, Strickland pushed for stronger powers to regulate the auto industry, doubling the fine for car manufacturers who fail to make timely recalls and stepping up the agency's power to stop imported automobiles at the port for failing to meet US regulatory standards.

Now in his role as a representative of a group of car makers, ride-share startups, and tech companies, he will attempt to influence the federal government to take as light a touch as possible on the issue of self-driving cars. NHTSA is currently working on a set of rules and policies, pitting Strickland against his former agency in the race to clear the road for fully self-driving cars. (Strickland has previously been criticized for perpetuating Washington's "revolving door" culture of former government officials becoming lobbyists.)

"This technology will be available soon"

"This technology will be available soon," Strickland told The Verge. "My job will be to talk with people about the promises of the technology, so we can get the benefits that we all see so broadly within reach."

The goal is to pave the way for "fully autonomous vehicles," he said, meaning "Level 4" self-driving capabilities that require no human intervention. Strickland will be pushing federal and state regulators to craft laws — or in some instances refrain from passing any laws — for these types of cars.

In a twist, the US Department of Transportation has actually been pretty bullish on self-driving cars, asking the industry for its ideas for regulations and promising to avoid restricting innovation as much as possible. But Strickland says there is still the possibility that some states will pass rules to impede the rollout of fully autonomous cars. And that's where his group will come into play. "There are licensing and policing powers that happen at the state level and below the state level — at the county and city level —€” [and these] decisions could impact self-driving cars," he said.

"This group is one that's at the technological and engineering spearpoint"

Another part of his job will be to convince those skeptics that don't believe the technology to be ready for public use. "This group is one that's at the technological and engineering spearpoint of being able to answer those questions about readiness," he said.

Fresh out of the gate, his first task was to deliver the coalition's testimony at a public hearing Wednesday on self-driving cars convened by NHTSA at Stanford University. He warned officials that "inconsistencies in the regulatory environment today ... could greatly delay deployment or possibly deny full self driving from many that could benefit from its promise."

Among those Strickland thinks could have benefited from fully self-driving cars was his late grandmother, Exie. "During the '70s and '80s, I was her little co-conspirator," he recalled warmly. "She wanted to drive again. My parents took away the keys. And this was a woman who raised nine kids in the Jim Crow South. All she wanted to do was drive herself to the bank and she couldn't anymore."

If Strickland's grandmother, who passed away in 2001, could rely on a self-driving car rather than a family member to take her on her errands, that independence "would have meant the world to her," he said.