Potential limits on a visa program intended for high-skilled foreign workers could slow the race to build self-driving vehicles, according to a director at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.
The H1-B visa program, a pool of up to 85,000 temporary visas distributed annually by lottery, has come under criticism by the Trump administration. Although tech giants such as Google and Microsoft use many H1-B visas, automakers have increasingly used them to address the shortage of engineers to work on autonomous vehicle programs.
"There's not enough [engineers] to start with," said Richard Wallace, director of the Transportation Systems Analysis group at the Center for Automotive Research. "The H1-B visa has been the primary pathway to finding this type of technical talent."
As competition to introduce market-ready self-driving vehicles has grown over the past few years, universities have been slow to adapt to the increased demands for talent. Automakers are fighting fiercely over engineers skilled in robotics, artificial intelligence, machine vision and more.
To meet demand, companies are increasingly looking abroad.
Ford Motor Co. filed 194 preliminary applications for H1-B visas in 2016, up from six in 2012, according to public records released by the U.S. Department of Labor. General Motors filed 293 applications in 2016, up from 10 in 2012.
The H1-B program has been hit with accusations of abuse. During the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump released a statement slamming some employers for using H1-B visas as a "cheap labor program" subject to "widespread, rampant" abuse. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has also sought to limit the program in the past. Last month, the Trump administration said officials had drafted an executive order aimed at overhauling the H1-B program.
While companies and universities seek ways to boost enrollment in engineering programs relevant to autonomous vehicle technology, the time necessary to find students, develop coursework and hire instructors could still be too short.
"We don't have time for this pipeline; the time is now," said Wallace. "Where are we going to get this talent if it's not outsourcing work to India, Bulgaria, Poland, Canada, and we're not importing talent?"
"We're in some serious trouble. We're really missing the global competition."