Chao promises 'tech-neutral' robot car approach

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao promised President Donald Trump's administration will take a "tech-neutral and flexible" approach to regulating self-driving cars as it prepares to roll out new voluntary guidelines for hands-free driving.

Speaking during a speech Sunday at the Detroit auto show, Chao said the Trump administration is planning to unveil this summer what would be a third set of voluntary guidelines for self-driving cars issued by the federal government since 2016.

Chao said the federal government is updating its guidelines for self-driving cars frequently in an attempt "to avoid a patchwork of different approaches by encouraging interoperability standards and consistent rules, while respecting the role of state and local governments.

"This technology is changing so fast that a multi-modal version, AV 3.0 is already in the works," she said, promising the latest iteration "will include guidance for more than just automobiles.

"It will address barriers to the safe integration of autonomous technology for motor carriers, transit, trucks, infrastructure and other modes, as well," Chao said.

Chao said the Trump administration's approach to self-driving cars "will be tech neutral and flexible — not top-down, or command and control.

United States Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao speaks in the Cobo Center Atrium in Detroit, Michigan on January 14, 2018.

"The (Transportation) Department will not be in the business of picking winners or losers or favoring one form of technology over another," Chao said. 

Chao noted as automakers are preparing to roll out prototype self-driving cars at their annual confab in Detroit that most drivers are still apprehensive about the idea of removing humans from behind the wheel.

"A recent AAA survey found that 78 percent of Americans surveyed are afraid to ride in a driverless car," she said. "So there are legitimate public concerns that must be addressed before this technology can reach its full potential in our society.

The former Labor Secretary also acknowledged concerns that have been raised about potential job disruption in the professional driving industry.

"There’s an additional concern about the 'disruptive' nature of this technology and its impact on jobs," Chao said. "As former Secretary of Labor, this concerns me greatly. In the long term, new technologies will create new jobs, but it will be different kinds of jobs … But the transition period can be very difficult for dislocated workers. So, it is important to help those workers who are impacted adapt to this new world."

Speaking with reporters after her speech, Chao said "it's really incumbent upon these the manufacturers and high tech industry to assuage"  concerns that have been raised about the safety of self-driving cars.

"I’ve been out to Silicon Valley, I’ve been out to talk with various manufacturers," she said. "Consumer acceptance will be the constraint to their growth. So it is incumbent upon these manufacturers and hi-tech companies to share their enthusiasm and their confidence in this new technology. Because unless they do so, the consumers will not accept it and this will not be successful. So it is to their own self-interest, and I urge them to do, to educate the public about their confidence and their belief in this new technology.

Asked to comment on President Trump's controversial comments about immigration, in which he referred to African nations and others as "s--tholes," Chao, who was born in Taiwan, declined to comment.

"I’m here to talk about transportation and the technology that will transform our world," she said. "This is an ideal place to do so because Detroit is always a place for mobility and for innovation. That is what I am talking about."

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing