President-elect Trump’s pick for Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao, showed this week at her confirmation hearing that she understands the challenging circumstances ahead for integrating autonomous vehicles into the country’s car fleet. The biggest issue will be designing a flexible regulatory framework in which the federal government leads while allowing both industry innovation and cracking down on any irresponsible rollouts.
Chao suggested that overbearing government regulations should not get in the way of U.S. leadership in this space, but did note negative consequences of the new technology should be mitigated the best they can: “There are also concerns about how [autonomous vehicles] will continue to develop. …. We need to do so in a way that will not dampen the basic creativity and innovation of our country,” she told the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on Wednesday.
“There are also concerns about how [autonomous vehicles] will continue to develop. …. We need to do so in a way that will not dampen the basic creativity and innovation of our country.”
In her opening statement, she said: “Looking to the future, we also have a unique opportunity to address the exciting new technologies transforming travel and commerce. The private sector is driving this innovation. They are working with cities and states to demonstrate improvements in the safety and efficiency of autonomous cars and trucks.” Chao continued: “The federal role in these sectors is still in its infancy. We want to work with Congress to position the federal government as a catalyst for safe, efficient technologies, not as an impediment.”
“The federal role in these sectors is still in its infancy. We want to work with Congress to position the federal government as a catalyst for safe, efficient technologies, not as an impediment.”
Based on her comments, Chao, who was Secretary of Labor under the George W. Bush administration, would be following the same approach as the Obama administration, which attempted to be hands off and sought to avoid a “patchwork” of state regulations.
Senator Gary Peters (D-Michigan) took the lead on questions about autonomous vehicles and made the case for the importance of the U.S. being a leader in this area to bolster the country’s economy and to keep the U.S. from falling behind Europe and Asia. In her response, Chao stated the technology is currently outpacing consumer understanding, which creates possible pitfalls. She suggested an approach that facilitates greater public familiarity and comfort with the technology, and the possible use of “testing grounds” as one way to do so. She also stressed testing in different parts of the country to take account of different climates in which the vehicles will operate. These ideas align closely with the recently released the recommendations from Commission on Autonomous Vehicle Testing and Safety, a project of Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE).
Chao highlighted the need to appropriately balance the potential of dislocation of workers because of autonomy while not taking actions that could stifle innovation.
In addition to Peters, Sens. Cory Gardner (R-Colorado), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nevada) also brought up autonomous vehicles at the hearing. Gardner highlighted the beer delivery by autonomous truck last year and how his state is poised to support innovation with the new technology, while Lee focused on potential job loss through autonomy. To this point, Chao highlighted the need to appropriately balance the potential of dislocation while not taking actions that could stifle innovation.
Besides autonomous vehicles, a host of other topics, including fuel-efficiency standards, maritime infrastructure, positive train control, and plans to rebuild the country’s transportation infrastructure, were discussed at the hearing. Chao is expected to be easily confirmed by the Senate.