GM Lobbyist Says Company Doesn’t Push Bills, Lawmakers Disagree

For now, legislation restricting the use of those pesky self-driving cars is mainly up to individual states. Because no one wants an experimental, untested car piloting their local roadways, states have erected legislative safety barriers that, for the most part, restrict pilot projects in certain areas, or on certain roads.

As everyone waits for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to make up its mind and put blanket regulations in place, an angry chorus of complaints from Silicon Valley startups is growing louder, accusing state lawmakers of favoring the old guard when it comes to fostering automotive technology.

Only naturally, concerns about corporate money influencing government decisions arose. One automaker’s political action fund seems more active than others

When Michigan declared itself open for self-driving business late last year, the legislative package contained a big asterisk. The door was open, but only for the testing of autonomous cars build by established automakers. This pleased the Detroit Three, as well as other automakers using the state’s facilities and roadways, but tech startups cried foul.

While the declaration was dialed back to include technology companies before being passed into law, other states simply took the original Michigan bill and used it as a template. No Uber or Waymo-friendly amendments in sight. Include Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts and Tennessee in that list.

Speaking to the Associated Press, GM’s top lobbyist for cyber and connected cars, Harry Lightsey, said that automakers push for restrictive legislation on autonomous vehicles out of a concern for safety.

For self-driving vehicles to flourish, “public acceptance of the technology is going to be very critical,” he said. “If somebody is allowed to put technology on the roads and highways that proves to be unsafe, that could have very harmful repercussions.”

Lightsey claims GM does not grease the wheels of self-driving legislation. “These bills aren’t being introduced at GM’s urging,” he said.

Four lawmakers who passed bills similar to Michigan’s say otherwise. Illinois state Rep. Mike Zalewski (D) said he sponsored a bill after GM sought him out and encouraged him to get behind the legislation.

Campaign contributions, in allowable amounts from above-board donors, are perfectly legal, yet remain a favorite target for those seeking to promote political purity and the separation of the corporate and political worlds. And with good reason: the optics stink.

As the Associated Press reports:

State records show Zalewski has received $2,000 in GM campaign contributions. The bill’s Republican co-sponsor, state Rep. Tom Demmer, has received $2,500 from GM and the bill’s state Senate sponsor, Democrat Martin Sandoval, has received $3,500.

Zalewski told AP he doesn’t draw connections between donations and policy. It’s worth noting that Zalewski saw more donations from various trade unions than GM during his 2016 state run, which shouldn’t shock anyone who’s ever dug through campaign finances. As for the optics of influence, any politician will tell you that no one sells out for a couple grand.

While the General Motors Company Political Action Committee remains a very active campaign donor, it isn’t alone. The Ford Motor Company Civic Action Fund is equally active but, in this case, its donations don’t overlap with GM’s.

Maryland state Sen. William Ferguson (D) introduced a similar bill after being contacted by GM lobbyists who said the automaker would “certainly look more favorably toward expanding [a transmission plant] in Maryland if there were a legal framework to test and develop (self-driving cars) more freely.” Ferguson later added to his remarks, claiming there was no specific promise made by GM.

In Tennessee, a Michigan 1.0-type bill introduced last year is slowly advancing towards becoming a law. GM, including Lightsey, applauded the proposed legislation, which would allow automakers to run pilot projects for autonomous ride-sharing fleets. Once again, GM’s cash makes an appearance.

The political action committee for Sen. Mark Green (R), the bill’s sponsor, received $3,000 from GM. House sponsor William Lamberth II (R) saw $2,000 from the automaker before the bill’s introduction. Green is on record as saying he would like the legislation to be more competitive.

In Arizona and Colorado, lobbying efforts by GM have so far failed to result in restrictive legislation that favors established automakers.

“We didn’t want to pick winners and losers in the autonomous vehicle arena,” Colorado state Rep. Faith Winter (D) told AP.

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