Driverless Car Industry Embraces Trump's Transportation Pick
President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for Transportation secretary is receiving praise from one area of the auto world: the driverless car industry.
The industry is salivating over Elaine Chao's light touch when it comes to regulations and her vocal support for the ride-sharing economy.
“We’re expecting she hits the ground running. She has the background, knowledge, skills and capability,” said Paul Brubaker, president and chief executive officer of the Alliance for Transportation Innovation.
“She has a keen understanding that technology presents a great opportunity to … create new mobility paradigms," he said.
Chao ran the Department of Labor under George W. Bush and served as deputy Transportation secretary in the George H.W. Bush administration. She is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
If confirmed for the position by the Senate, Chao would also play a pivotal role in overseeing the deployment and operation of self-driving vehicles.
Chao’s likely appointment will come at a time when the emerging industry is still working to test and build driverless cars. Companies like Google and Uber are already testing autonomous vehicles on the streets, and some automakers hope to build fully driverless cars in the next few years.
"[W]e welcome the opportunity to work with her on bringing the safety and mobility benefits of fully self-driving vehicles to America’s roads and highways," said David Strickland, general counsel for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets.
“There’s an opportunity to lead on this issue, and I suspect that they’re going to embrace that opportunity and make this a legacy,” Brubaker said.
Her nomination also puts a spotlight on transportation regulation.
Automakers and technology firms have long expressed concern that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) would enforce regulations in a way that hampers innovation and have pleaded with the agency for more flexibility.
The NHTSA unveiled voluntary guidelines in September, but said it intends to eventually take the 15-point safety checklist through the formal rulemaking process.
Chao could represent a change in direction.
During her tenure at the Department of Labor, for example, the department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration didn’t issue any major safety regulations.
“You can expect to see her take a very light touch. I think you could characterize her as a reluctant regulator,” said Thomas O. McGarity, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
“She has certainly in the past demonstrated a strong commitment to letting the markets function as they will," added McGarity, who authored “Freedom to Harm,” a book about the Labor Department when Chao was there.
Brubaker argues it’s possible that Chao keeps the driverless car guidelines as voluntary, or at least ensures that the rulemaking process be “less cumbersome, less prescriptive and established in a way that allows the innovation cycle to run its course appropriately.”
Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), co-chair of the Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus, acknowledged that Chao is going to be facing “a big choice” on the driverless car guidelines.
“Are they going to continue with that, or say we’re going to scrap this and come up with something new?” he said.
But Lipinski worries that without any clear federal regulations, states will produce a messy patchwork of laws — another major industry concern.
“It’s tough,” Lipinski said. “If there’s nothing, each state is going to go out and do whatever they want to do. That’s not helpful to development.”
Chao has also voiced support for the workplace models used by ride-hailing firms like Lyft and Uber, which are aggressively competing with tech giants in the driverless car space. Both companies treat their drivers like independent contractors instead of full-time employees, which has drawn some flak from Democrats and union groups.
“Many of the government’s workplace regulations were created during an era when workers spent the majority of their lives in one establishment or one profession. That’s no longer the case today,” Chao said at an American Action Forum event last year.
“So it is legitimate to ask if the regulatory solutions of the past — crafted by big government for big business — are appropriate for a peer-to-peer economy that is fluid, flexible and filled with workers who prefer independent arrangements.”
Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), who serves on the Appropriations subcommittee on transportation, said Chao’s favorable comments about the gig economy are “helpful” and thinks she should work closely with both the technology and transportation industries.
“She’ll have an opportunity to oversee the current voluntary guidelines,” Quigley said. “It will be really important that she work with tech and transportation.”
Uber, which is using semi-driverless cars for its fleets in Pittsburgh, praised Chao’s experience in the transportation sector and said the company plans to work with her closely on issues important to the company.
“Ms. Chao's knowledge of transportation issues is extensive, and we look forward to working closely with her,” Niki Christoff, head of federal affairs for Uber, said in a statement.
Although McGarity acknowledged that Chao’s policy decisions will also hinge on the wishes of the Trump administration and the next NHTSA administrator, he said Chao is sure to leave an imprint on the industry in some way.
“Driverless vehicles is a new thing, so she really will have a lot of control,” he said.
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