Elaine Chao, the U.S. transportation secretary, hasn’t displayed a cunning grasp of autonomous vehicles or where the technology behind them stands today, yet on Monday she implored Silicon Valley to “step up” and explain robot cars better to the public in order to assuage any fears people might have.
It’s an interesting take from the secretary, who just last month said that we have “level two self-driving cars” (that is, semi-autonomous cars) on the road that don’t require “any person to be seated and controlling any of the instruments.”
Speaking to reporters at a conference in Detroit, Chao also disclosed that her department is currently reviewing the lengthy voluntary guidelines for automated cars issued last fall by former President Barack Obama’s administration. A new version is expected to be released in the coming months that’s adjusted based on feedback from the public and private sector, according to Bloomberg.
But let’s focus on her remark about companies leading the way on the AV front.
“A lot of the technology comes from Silicon Valley,” Chao told reporters following a speech at a department-sponsored conference in Detroit. “They have a responsibility to educate the rest of the American public on the technologies they’re thinking about, technologies which are miles and miles ahead of most people’s understanding.”
It’s a notable point to make. Right now, only a quarter of Americans trust autonomous cars, but Chao herself delivered comments last month that makes it seem like even she’s not fully aware of what’s going on.
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.
“Level two” here refers to the Society of Automotive engineers scale for autonomy, and can be best referred to as semi-autonomous. A charitable read of Chao’s remarks could give her some leeway, as there’s no level five—or fully autonomous—cars on the road right now, and it certainly would be a safety hazard if there were.
But her phrasing—“We have level two self-driving cars ... and there’s really no need for any person to be seated and controlling any of the instruments”—can easily be misread by the unassuming public Chao now says needs to become better informed about AVs by way of Silicon Valley. It’s exactly the kind of advertising about level two vehicles that California recently proposed to ban.
“I want there to be a robust American auto manufacturing industry and I want Silicon Valley to help explain the technologies that they are developing and promoting so that more people can understand how this technology can improve safety, decrease fatalities and help mobility,” Chao said.
Great point, secretary—and it’d carry more weight if you would clearly demonstrate you understand the technology, as well.