Here’s Elaine Chao, the new U.S. Transportation Secretary who is concerned about the comfort level citizens have toward autonomous cars, talking about self-driving cars this week: “We have now self-driving cars. We have level-two self-driving cars. They can drive on the highway, follow the white lines on the highway, and there’s really no need for any person to be seated and controlling any of the instruments.” Come again?
When Chao expressed that she understands citizens need to better understand self-driving tech, it was a show for optimism; only one-in-four Americans trust the idea of a robot car right now. But this remark? This doesn’t jibe with reality. Here’s the full quote from her interview on Fox Business, conveyed via Verge:
We have now self-driving cars. We have level-two self-driving cars. They can drive on the highway, follow the white lines on the highway, and there’s really no need for any person to be seated and controlling any of the instruments. And now we’re also seeing self-driving trains that are possible, self-driving planes.
Chao’s “level two” comment is a reference to the Society of Automotive engineers scale for autonomy. Level two—best referred to as “semi-autonomous”—is what’s on the road right now, like Tesla’s Autopilot feature. There isn’t, as Chao conveys, “self-driving cars” being mass-produced and sold. That would be level five on the chart (which you can see below) or maybe, level four, which a human driver is still needed in case there’s, say, bad weather.
What’s even more disconcerting, the Verge reported that Chao reiterated her point later with an even more bizarre remark, saying: “a level two [car] is probably safer than a level five or a level four self-driving car.”
Maybe that’s her subjective view of the situation, but it’s practically a universally-held viewpoint among those developing autonomous tech that a fully self-driving car is safer than partial-autonomy. More than 90 percent of accidents are attributed to human error, so a rollout of fully-autonomous cars would, presumably, cause that number to drop. (Though there’s plenty of concern about mixing fully autonomous vehicles and human-driven cars on the road.)
But at a time when automakers are looking for guidance on how regulations will oversee the implementation of fully-autonomous cars, it’s probably not much comfort to know the top transportation chief in the U.S. doesn’t seem to grasp the situation all too well.