Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of transportation Elaine L. Chao was in front of a Senate committee seeking to confirm her nomination on Wednesday, fielding a number of questions about the future of the FAA, rail transit and more.
Chao also addressed questions and concerns around tech innovation in transportation, specifically touching on autonomous vehicles, connected infrastructure, drones and more.
In initial statements, Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-SD) noted that the next U.S. secretary of transportation would have “a unique opportunity to show federal leadership in the advancement of transportation innovation,” with specific influence in areas like vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) tech, self-driving vehicles and drones or UAVs.
Chao identified “a failure to pace with emerging technologies” as a big reason why the U.S. transportation system, including both ground- and air-based transit, is facing a potential risk of falling behind. She said that while “first and foremost, safety will continue to be the primary objective” in setting an agenda for advancement of transportation efforts, she also will seek to identify and remove unnecessary bottlenecks preventing the use of new technologies coming to market that could increase safety and efficiency.
On the infrastructure side, Chao expressed a desire to “unleash the potential” for private investment in federal transportation infrastructure projects, which basically means she’s open to making it easier for private companies to participate in broad public works projects designed to move the needle on transportation networks.
“[P]ublic-private partnerships,” Chao said, will enable the U.S. to “take full advantage of the estimated trillions in capital that equity firms, pension funds, and endowments can invest,” noting that “we all know that the government doesn’t have the resources to deliver it all.”
Addressing autonomous vehicles, including passenger cars and commercial trucks, as well as drones and their potential tremendous commercial impact, Chao noted that the “federal role is still very much in its infancy,” and said that going forward, the aim is to position that role “as a catalyst for safe, efficient technologies,” rather than as “an impediment” for the implementation of the same. This should definitely buoy the hopes of private companies working to bring autonomous driving and drone tech to market, and indeed those companies have already signaled enthusiasm for the choice of Chao as DOT leader.
Chao said ensuring the ability of these technological improvements to flourish is key to “strengthening [U.S.] competitiveness” and “improving quality of life,” and noted that while there are lots of concerns remaining, her intent is to “work to address them” but in a way that “will not dampen basic innovation and creativity.”
In response to a question from Senator Gary Peters (D-MI), Chao said that she’s “very open” to working with the auto industry on autonomous vehicle technology. Asked specifically about how she views the issue of technology outpacing regulation and the pace of government, she provided the following answer to Peters:
What we are seeing is obviously technology outstripping the consumer ability to accept and understand the technology. It behooves all of us, as a country and as a society, to bring greater familiarity and greater comfort, for passengers and other stakeholders who will 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, and I look forward to doing that with you.
Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) asked about drones, noting that regulation has appeared to hamper the progress of drone tech’s impact on commerce. Again, Chao signaled a desire to spark a broader, national conversation about where the U.S. wants drone tech to lead:
The drone started out at the Department of Defense, it’s an emerging technology, there are those who see the benefits of commercializing them for various uses, it’s transforming the way we work, the way we do commerce. There are also those who are very concerned about privacy issues, security issues, and again for going forward with an emerging technology as important as this with such vast implications for our future, I think we need to talk about it, we need to have again a national consensus for where we’re going. State-by-state patchwork is of concern, and what does that mean for federal regulation, so I look forward to working with the committee and also with Congress on this issue.
Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH) also concluded her statements saying she hopes Chao will help ensure that as autonomous driving tech becomes available, it’s also accessible to those who, for whatever reason, have no access to driving a car, either due to preventative health conditions or cost, to which Chao responded that this was a “very good point” she’ll keep in mind.
In terms of existing smart transportation initiatives, Colorado is actually fairly far along (they hosted the first commercial driverless delivery via semi-truck earlier this year). Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO) asked about smart transportation, and ensuring that there is no “onerous adoption” of regulations at the federal level to block this kind of tech from “thriving,” and specifically about how federal concerns should work with state agencies.
“Always in collaboration,” Chao answered, “The federal government can’t do this on its own and it must take into account the perspective of the stakeholders, so we look forward to working with you on all these concerns.” Chao also added that regulations need to be based on “sound science” and “real data” to help ensure that they don’t come down as overly burdensome to efforts to advance innovation.
Chao also committed to make a visit to Nevada to check out what the state is doing to take leadership in autonomous driving technology, when asked to do so by Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV). Nevada has committed state resources to development of autonomous tech, and played host to a number of public road self-driving vehicle technologies just last week at the annual CES tech conference.
On climate change issues, Tom Udall (D-NM) asked whether Chao’s Department of Transportation will work to address greenhouse gasses and the results of climate change, noting the previous administration’s work to do the same. Trump has mostly indicated a skeptical stance on climate change, but Chao avoided a firm answer, noting instead that she was “not briefed” on this particular subject currently and would have to revisit it later.
Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) wanted to know Chao’s thoughts on connected vehicles and privacy. Automobiles increasingly represent a hacking risk, and cars also gather more information about us and our movement patterns than ever before, through connectivity and on-board sensors. Markey asked what role the government should have in protecting said data and citizens from potential breaches:
The innovation and creativity of our country is unsurpassed in the world, and so we have a responsibility to ensure that that creativity and that innovation remains. Obviously, with these new emerging technologies, there has now surfaced a number of key issues, privacy among them, that are very worrisome to a whole host of people. Safety is another. As these emerging technologies are coming up, they’re faced with state-by-state regulations, which also present a new challenge as well. Yet there are many benefits, for senior citizens who may not want to drive, autonomous vehicles are a way to give them back their freedom. So there are pros and cons, and we need to have a national dialogue about all of this. And as I said, the regulations at the federal level are in their infancy, and we need to work with members of the congress and all of you on this committee to make sure that we’re not dampening this creativity, and yet we’re also assuaging the real deep-seated concerns that so much of our public — many of our public — on some of the issues that these new emerging technologies bring.
Markey also asked about commercial drones, and data collection, which allows companies to collect data about individuals fairly unrestricted under current laws. He asked about what role the Department of Transportation should be playing in ensuring drones don’t compromise individual privacy rights. Chao essentially responded that as with other emerging tech issues, this requires a full and frank discussion about the benefits and drawbacks to their implementation at the national level.
Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) posed a question about commercial space exploration, which impacts young tech companies, including SpaceX and Blue Origin. He noted that Secretary Foxx’s exit memo doesn’t even mention commercial space, and asked if Chao would support moving commercial space concerns back under the DOT, and also be open to creating an environment where commercial space would thrive? Chao replied simply that she wasn’t briefed on this issue previously, and would look forward to working with Cruz once she was up to speed.
With a background including a stint as the secretary of labor, and as the deputy secretary of transportation, under President George W. Bush and George H. W. Bush respectively, Chao is one of the most well-qualified and experienced candidates among Trump’s selections for cabinet positions. Chao, who immigrated to the U.S. from Taipei, Taiwan at age 8, has also acted as the president and CEO of the U.S. branch of United Way, and has held numerous corporate and not-for-profit board director positions. Chao’s husband is Mitch McConnell (R-KY), current Senate majority leader.
Mobility tech service providers like Uber and Lyft have also celebrated Trump’s choice of Chao, with spokespeople for both companies articulating their support of her selection when it was originally made public in November.