Feinstein Collides With Big Tech Over Driverless Cars

It's the latest in a series of clashes between California's senior senator and one of her state's largest industries.

FILE - In this May 14, 2014 file photo, a Google self-driving car is on exhibit at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.
AP Photo/Eric Risberg
Aug. 5, 2018, 8 p.m.

Captains of industry from Detroit to Silicon Valley have announced that the advent of driverless cars is nearly upon us. Sen. Dianne Feinstein would like them to wait a little longer.

The California Democrat, a native of San Francisco, is well aware of how her state’s technological revolution boosts its economy and transforms how we live. But Feinstein still refuses to lift her months-old objections to the first major autonomous-vehicle bill in Congress, raising safety concerns and expressing her unease about driving among robots.

“I have deep concerns about it,” she recently told National Journal. “It’s too much, too soon. Too fast, too soon.”

It’s a far cry from the worldview of techies in her hometown, many of whom still ascribe to Facebook’s old ethos of “moving fast and breaking things.”

Over the past few years, Feinstein hasn’t shied away from taking on the most powerful technology companies in the world—including Apple, Facebook, Google, and Twitter—in high-profile debates over encryption and other national security issues. She’s also tangled with companies creating new technologies, from drones to driverless cars, over consumer-safety concerns.

Yet the powerful, 25-year senator still enjoys widespread support among voters in the tech-heavy regions near her hometown. Feinstein beat her Democratic challenger—former state Senate leader Kevin de León, who represents parts of Los Angeles—by over 30 points in San Mateo, Santa Clara, and San Francisco counties in the June primary.

“It is very helpful if your member of the United States Senate has a lot of clout in Washington,” said Steve Westly, a former California state controller and venture capitalist with stakes in companies like Tesla. “And I think, by any standard, Dianne Feinstein has clout.”

In recent years, that power has often worked against some of Silicon Valley’s top policy priorities in the nation’s capital, including in the current debate over driverless cars.

Companies like Google and Uber say that a future of autonomous vehicles is fast approaching. And they’ve lobbied for months to pave the way for it, advocating a Senate bill known as AV Start to hitch a ride on the must-pass Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill heading to the chamber’s floor in the coming weeks. The bill would greatly expand the number of federal safety exemptions each auto manufacturer can receive, allowing for the sale of tens of thousands of new autonomous vehicles.

Both tech companies and car manufacturers expect massive returns on their investments, which have escalated dramatically as they rack up millions of miles to prove driverless technology is ready for rapid adoption.

But the companies say that outdated federal highway-safety standards and a patchwork of state rules—29 states have enacted legislation so far—have made it difficult to bring the new technology to the mass market. So last fall, the House passed a bill without opposition to loosen federal restrictions and create a nationwide framework usurping state regulations. The Senate Commerce Committee introduced and passed similar legislation soon after, appearing to give momentum to the ultimate passage of the legislation.

That momentum faltered in December, when Feinstein said she was “strongly opposed” to the bill and essentially told the industry to slow down and get tested.

“People need to be assured, and they need to be assured over time,” she told Recode a month later. “And you can’t just dump something on a freeway and have people looking over saying, ‘My God, there’s no driver.’”

By March, she and four other Democratic senators had placed “holds” on the legislation, writing a letter expressing their concern that the bill “indefinitely preempts state and local safety regulations even if federal safety standards are never developed.” A few days later, an autonomous car operated by Uber with a backup driver hit and killed a woman on a street in Arizona. Uber immediately suspended testing, and the bill’s momentum halted.

Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune, the lead sponsor of AV Start, said he believes Feinstein is a primary driver of Senate opposition to the bill. “She’s ginned up a lot of opposition just based on the fact that she doesn’t like the technology and doesn’t think it’s safe,” Thune told National Journal.

“It’s all in her backyard,” he continued. “I keep telling these tech companies that the next time she’s back in her state they ought to take her for a ride in an autonomous vehicle, to just show her this stuff is safe and it’ll save a lot of lives in the long run.”

In an interview, Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, praised Sen. Feinstein’s role in the debate.

“I think it’s especially a profile of courage, considering she represents a state where a number of the tech companies are located,” Chase said. “The fact that she’s able and willing to express concerns about the swiftness of this bill moving forward, I think, is very commendable.”

This is only Feinstein's latest fight with Silicon Valley. In 2016, she pushed the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Airbnb, the popular online marketplace for short-term lodging rentals, and in 2017 she introduced drone legislation that some industry advocates say would unduly restrict the usage and testing of unmanned aerial vehicles.

Feinstein has threatened top lawyers at Facebook, Google, and Twitter with new regulations in the wake of the Russian government’s meddling on their platforms in the 2016 presidential election. “You have to be the ones who do something about it—or we will,” she warned the companies during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing.

And when law enforcement was unable to break into an attacker’s iPhone following the San Bernardino mass shooting in 2015, Feinstein sided with the FBI over Apple in the debate over federal access to encrypted communications. She and Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley are now reportedly mulling another shot at legislation to create “backdoors” for law enforcement to break into encrypted software and hardware.

“In [Silicon] Valley, there’s a great belief in civil liberties, in the importance of fighting mass surveillance, in the importance of encryption, in not having the expansive power of the state over the individual,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, a Democratic member from Silicon Valley who supports Feinstein’s Senate challenger. “She just has been on the other side of those issues.”

When asked about her overall relationship with Silicon Valley, Feinstein noted in a statement to National Journal that she “regularly” meets with tech leaders and advocates, whether it be for a new patent office in San Jose or to push for expanding H1-B visas, which are given to highly skilled foreign citizens.

“These relationships are collaborative, and I’m happy that I’ve been able to develop close ties to tech executives over the years,” Feinstein wrote. “Tech companies are one of the biggest drivers not only for California’s economy but the entire country. I’ve long had a very close relationship with Silicon Valley.”

But de León, Feinstein’s challenger in California’s unique “top-two” general election, has garnered support and donations from some of the top tech leaders in his state. After calling AV Start “just another D.C. power-grab and end-run around state regulations” in March, a de León campaign aide says he now supports the bill, putting him in line with several California members of Congress. In an interview with National Journal, de León claimed that the senator is not doing enough for the industry.

“It’d be the equivalent of the senator for Michigan not lifting a finger for Ford, for Chrysler, for Chevy, GM—in fact, less than not even lifting a finger, but going after them,” de León said of Feinstein’s continued opposition to the bill and to Silicon Valley’s priorities in general.

Westly says Feinstein has had “a strong 30-year track record in the Valley” but acknowledged he’d “love to see her leaning forward a little more.

“I think Senator Feinstein may have been slower to embrace some of the new technologies than I would like, but I think she will get there,” he said. “There will be more drones. There will be more autonomous vehicles. Some of them will lead to accidents, but over time I guarantee you autonomous vehicles will be safer than vehicles driven by people.”

But for now, Feinstein is still urging the tech industry to pump the brakes.

“This bill determines how the federal government and states will manage self-driving cars,” she told National Journal in a statement. “A bill this important deserves a thorough debate and shouldn’t be rushed through while serious concerns remain unresolved.”

And as the debate drags on, others on Capitol Hill wonder why Silicon Valley can’t bring its hometown senator along for the ride.

“It makes me think that maybe the tech community isn’t very effective when it comes to lobbying members of their state,” Thune said. “There’s a lot of stuff that they want to get done, and we’re working with them. But they have a hard time bringing along the people that are closest to them.”

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