U.S. Has No Clue How Autonomous Cars Will Work: New Transportation Secretary

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In what has been otherwise a tremendously boring confirmation hearing, Elaine Chao—President-elect Donald Trump’s designee for U.S. transportation secretary—said the incoming administration’s job will be to better familiarize and comfort citizens about the effect autonomous driving technology may have on society.

Between repeatedly ensuring members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation that she’s looking forward to working with them on a plethora of issues, Chao’s remarks about autonomous technology shed some light on how she believes the federal government should approach it.


“[What] we are seeing is, obviously, technology outstripping the consumer ability to accept and understand some of the technology,” Chao said during the hearing.

“So I think it behooves all of us as a country and society to bring greater familiarity and greater comfort for those who are passengers and other stakeholders who would be eventual users of this technology to understand the benefits, the limitations, and also what it means going forward in the future. So, it requires a national discussion.”


Early on, Chao was asked about how she’ll approach the current administration’s efforts to provide a basic framework for autonomous vehicles.

She offered a platitude about how the U.S. is a creative force, and the government needs to stay out of the way to let it that creativity flow.

Innovation and creativity is a hallmark of America. We are famous throughout the world because of the ingenuity and creativity that we have shown, and we have led the world on so many fronts because of the new technologies that our country has been able to pioneer. We are now seeing the advent of autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence, smart cars, and also drones.

While the benefits are very much known, there are also concerns about how they will continue to develop, and I will work with this committee and the Congress to address many of these concerns. But we need to do so in a way that will not dampen the basic creativity and innovation of our country.


I ran that quote through Google Translate from Canned Banalities to Human, and the gist is: We’ve got serious work to do, because no one really seems to know what the deal is with these robot cars—other than it is expected to save lives.


Chao, with a pedigree that includes previous stops at the conservative Heritage Foundation and as Labor Secretary under President George W. Bush, touted the benefits of leaning on the private sector for guidance on new technology.

“The private sector is driving this innovation,” she wrote in her opening remarks. “They are working with cities and states to demonstrate improvements in the safety and efficiency of autonomous cars and trucks. Drones are poised to become a major commercial force. 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.”


Chao has spent the majority of her career as a fixture in Washington. She worked as Deputy Transportation Secretary under President George H.W. Bush and will be tasked with implementing what Trump has promised will be $1 trillion of new infrastructure spending, paid through new government debt and an expansion of the deficit.


The core of the plan—leaning on private investment, in return for significant tax credits and the like—is certain to draw some criticism from opponents of privatization. As Fortune notes, the whopper of a tax credit—82 cents for every dollar—“means that savvy investors can suddenly own and collect tolls on a very expensive road after putting up relatively little in real dollars.” Fortune said Ronald Klain, who orchestrated President Obama’s infrastructure plan, called it “a massive corporate welfare plan for contractors.”

Based on Chao’s remarks Wednesday, she’s likely to dig it. She called the proposal from her new boss “ambitious” and “futuristic.” Either way, she, like the rest of the auto sector and her agency, will have a lot on her plate soon.