Tech companies ignore pleas on rail safety

By Sam Mintz

In late 2016, federal investigators probing a fatal crash between a confused truck driver and a California commuter train made a plea to Google, Apple and Microsoft: Add information on the nation’s hundreds of thousands of railroad crossings to your navigation apps.

Nearly three years later, none of them has.

The inaction by giant tech companies remains a frustration for safety advocates, at a time when hundreds of people die every year in collisions at U.S. railroad crossings, even as drivers increasingly rely on their smartphones’ GPS applications to tell them where to go. And it comes in an era when the tech industry is under fire in Washington for a litany of perceived anti-social behavior — from ruthless squelching of competitors to cavalier handling of users’ private data.

The companies’ failure to act is "tantamount to gross negligence," said Sarah Feinberg, who led the Federal Railroad Administration at the time of the February 2015 crash in Oxnard, Calif., that prompted the request from the National Transportation Safety Board.

It's “indisputable that they could save lives by acting," said Feinberg, who spearheaded high-visibility campaigns to combat deaths at railroad crossings.

Google told POLITICO in a statement that it remains “aware" of the "recommendation and will continue to look for new ways to bring drivers useful features that help them get around safely.” But the company also told the NTSB in 2017 that it faces “a balancing act” in designing its navigation apps — adding information without causing “overcrowding” that distracts drivers.

Apple and Microsoft did not respond to requests for comment. And they also haven’t yet responded to the NTSB, according to the agency, which says it is still awaiting responses from 11 of the 14 tech companies, GPS manufacturers and other organizations it reached out to in December 2016.

The NTSB, which investigates accidents but has no regulatory power, requested the safety improvements as part of a probe into the Oxnard crash. In that accident, a truck driver following directions from his Google Maps app mistakenly turned onto the railroad tracks and became stuck, leading to a collision that killed a train engineer and injured 32 passengers and crew members.

Adding information on railroad crossings to mobile apps would “provide road users with additional safety cues and ... reduce the likelihood of crashes,” the NTSB wrote to the leaders of the 14 organizations, including Google CEO Sundar Pichai, Apple CEO Tim Cook and Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella. Last year, 270 people died in accidents at railroad crossings in the U.S., just one fewer than in 2017, which itself was the deadliest year at crossings in more than a decade.

After falling for some time, the numbers of collisions and fatalities have remained flat over the past few years, which federal officials and the railroad industry say is probably due in part to there being more drivers on the road and trains on the rails.

According to the FRA, the U.S. has more than 200,000 railroad “grade” crossings, where the rails and the roads they intersect are on the same level.

Daniel Stevens, the head of the watchdog group Campaign for Accountability, who has been monitoring Google closely for his organization’s Google Transparency Project, said the failure to act fits a pattern at the company.

“Tech companies like Google are often cavalier in how they respond to regulators seeking to uphold safety standards,” Stevens said. He added, “What we've learned in tracking Google for several years is that Google generally makes decisions based on what will make the company the most money.”

A few months after the NTSB made the recommendation, Google responded by saying it was working with FRA but did not commit to adding any features to Google Maps.

“Our product teams carefully consider new safety features in the context of the holistic product experience and, in that way, seek to avoid evaluating individual features in isolation that could lead to overcrowding and create a sub-optimal experience for users," wrote the then-head of Google’s D.C. office, former Republican Rep. Susan Molinari.

She added that the company aimed to improve safety through all its products, including Google Maps, Waze app and Android Auto, including by providing information on speed limits and “difficult intersections.”

“Highlighting necessary information on the map and in our navigation services without overcrowding it and distracting users is a balancing act,” Molinari wrote.

During Feinberg's tenure, the FRA said it had received initial agreements from some tech companies, including Google and Apple, to integrate the agency’s data on crossings into their products, according to the NTSB report on the Oxnard crash. That led to a flurry of headlines that made it sound as though the improvement were a done deal, including “Google adds federal railroad information to mobile maps.”

But one former FRA official said Google started dragging its feet, in part prompting the NTSB recommendation.

“This comes at an interesting moment when tech is under the gun in Congress and in the public,” said the former official, who requested anonymity because he still deals with the agency. "These companies are missing easy points to improve safety and their standing with the public."

While Google has yet to roll out the broad crossings data requested by the NTSB, it has offered a much more limited subset covering Long Island on the Waze navigation app, in a partnership with New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

The NTSB listed Google’s response as “acceptable” but said only two navigation-focused companies responded in ways that were satisfactory enough for the agency to close the recommendation: GPS maker Garmin, which said it incorporated railroad crossing data into its navigation products in 2016, and TomTom, which said its maps include full coverage of crossings.

The United Parcel Service is also on the NTSB’s list of companies that haven’t responded, but a UPS spokesperson told POLITICO that the company’s proprietary navigation system for its drivers includes railroad crossings. A representative of the U.S. group behind the collaborative mapping platform OpenStreetMap also said its system includes crossing data, though not from the FRA's comprehensive set. None of the other companies listed in the NTSB's recommendations responded to requests for comment for this article.

A FRA spokesperson would not comment on conversations with individual businesses but said the agency is continuing to explore potential safety enhancements and has had discussions with tech companies.

“FRA is always willing to continue exploring the integration of grade crossing GIS data into navigation systems,” the spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, drivers continue to drive onto railroad tracks, with news reports indicating that GPS confusion is at least part of the reason.

Those reported in the past year and a half include accidents that left cars totaled, such as one on Long Island in March 2018 and Florida in December. In other cases, drivers have been left with just embarrassment and a police citation, such as those involved in incidents in November in Duquesne, Pa., or again in February in Ayer, Mass.