Chao Reflects on Challenges for AVs at Detroit Auto Show

January 19, 2018

Over a dozen politicians and federal government officials descended on Detroit earlier this week for the opening days of the North American International Auto Show, seizing the opportunity to publicly support the auto industry at an event that drew at least 800,000 people last year.

But unlike previous years, the federal presence was less about making an appearance and more about making a statement in support of the industry’s development of automated vehicles (AVs).

Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI) and about ten other Members of Congress touted the AV legislation that the House passed last September, the SELF DRIVE Act (H.R. 3388). Meanwhile, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and USDOT officials promoted the Administration’s revision to the federal government’s AV policies last September and the next iteration, which is due this summer.

But in contrast to the full-throated support of AVs from Dingell and her colleagues, Chao presented a rather nuanced view of the technology during her keynote speech on January 14.

While AVs are often invoked as a symbol of American ingenuity and economic competitiveness in the 21st Century, they have also raised questions about the displacement of human workers due to automation.

As ETW has written previously, the transition to fully automated trucks, buses, and taxis will likely take decades due to the need for humans to complete many of the other inherent responsibilities of driving jobs – but this has been of little reassurance for Democrats and labor unions.

“As former Secretary of Labor, this concerns me greatly,” said Chao. “In the long run, new technologies will create different types of jobs. But the transition period can be very difficult for dislocated workers.  So, it is important to help these workers adapt to this new world.”

The challenge of building consumer acceptance also looms large. Chao acknowledged that the general public has not yet been convinced that AVs will operate safely, be secure from cyber threats, or protect individuals’ privacy.

“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.”

In fact, these concerns have led a handful of Senate Democrats to place holds on the Senate AV bill, AV START (S. 1885), bringing it to a screeching halt even after passing the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee by voice last fall. Among the most vocal Democratic holds are Sen. Markey (D-MA), who is pushing for stronger language around cybersecurity and consumer privacy, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who has questioned the prospect of automated systems driving cars in the first place.

But it was not all doom and gloom for Chao. She lauded the potential of AVs to enhance the mobility in an inclusive manner that addresses the needs of not just urban areas – which is where the first deployments of semi-autonomous taxis have began – but also in rural areas.

“We hear a lot about Smart Cities,” she said. “And that’s great, but not everyone lives downtown.  And it is worth noting that rural America accounts for a disproportionately large share of highway fatalities.  So, automated technology has an important role to play in rural mobility and safety, as well.”

The secretary also had plenty of praise for the auto industry, particularly GM for the recent release of a document explaining its technology (which is in line with the most recent AV guidance) and to Fiat Chrysler Automotive, which announced just a few days before that it invested $1 billion in relocating production of its Ram Heavy Duty Trucks from Mexico to Michigan.

Nevertheless, Chao closed with a call to action for the industry:

“You are the vanguard of a transportation future that will be safer, more accessible, and more efficient . . . So let me challenge you to step up and educate the public more fully about the tremendous potential and benefits of this new technology.”


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