Several senators wanted to know in Elaine Chao’s nomination hearing Wednesday how she planned to regulate emerging technology such as autonomous vehicles and drones.
But President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for Transportation secretary didn’t have many specific answers to give. What she did say, however, was that a national conversation around the issue will be needed.
In her prepared remarks for the hearing before the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Chao said the department’s role is to make sure the technology is safe, but to do so without impeding innovation.
“We want to work with Congress to position the federal government as a catalyst for safe, efficient technologies, not as an impediment,” she said.
Committee Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., said he welcomed her goal, and asked how the department under her leadership would keep pace with changing technology.
In her answer Chao reiterated much of her opening remarks, but acknowledged that some have concerns about how the technologies around autonomous vehicles, drones and artificial intelligence continue to develop. Chao said she wants to address those with Congress in a way that “will not dampen the basic creativity and innovation of our country.”
“The next Secretary of Transportation will… have a unique opportunity to show federal leadership in the advancement of transportation innovation,” Thune said in prepared opening remarks, kicking off the hearing with an emphasis on technology. “[Vehicle-to-vehicle] technology, autonomous vehicles, and unmanned aircraft systems, to name a few, have great promise to increase safety, improve efficiency and spur economic growth.”
He did add that “but like all new technologies, these must be properly integrated into our current networks in a way that maximizes their benefits without compromising the performance of the current systems.”
A sector with rapid developments
Wednesday’s hearing was not contentious overall, and Chao — who was secretary of Labor under President George W. Bush, was deputy Transportation secretary under Bush’s father and is married to current Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. — received bipartisan praise. But it highlighted how things have changed since the last time the Senate considered a Transportation secretary nominee — in 2013, for Anthony Foxx. As Foxx noted later, emerging technologies such as autonomous vehicles or drones weren’t even on the map back then.
“The reality is I don’t think anyone has anticipated the rate of change in transportation when it comes to technology,” Foxx said in October 2016. “It’s like the mobile phone was 15 years ago, all that’s coming into transportation so rapidly.”
In Chao’s prepared remarks, she noted that the private sector is driving innovation. In particular, Chao noted industry is “working with cities and states to demonstrate improvements in the safety and efficiency of autonomous vehicles.”
She added, too, that “Drones are poised to become a major commercial force.”
Despite the rapid pace of technological innovation though, Chao said that “the federal role in these sectors is still very much in its infancy.”
There has been progress under Foxx, though: The department has already released a framework with which to view autonomous vehicles. And the Federal Aviation Administration’s first rules on small commercial drones took effect late August 2016.
It was unclear from Chao’s hearing whether or not she supported those, or any other past department stances on emerging transportation technologies.
Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., noted that federal policy often lags behind the rate of change in the technology world. He asked if Chao had any “specific ideas” on how to speed the regulatory process up.
Chao said technology is outstripping the consumer ability to accept and understand it, and she recommended the country as a whole work to help get people more comfortable with technology like what will underpin autonomous vehicles, and help them to understand the benefits and limitations of it.
“It requires a national discussion and I look forward to doing that with you,” Chao said.
On drones, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., asked if Chao thinks there has been over regulation of unmanned systems, and if she plans to attack the issue quickly into her service.
Chao again outlined that there are people who have concerns about the technology as well as there are people who want to innovate in the area, and that “we need to talk about it,” and that there needs to be a “national consensus” around the topic.
“State-by-state patchwork is of concern, and what does that mean for federal regulations?” Chao said. “So I look forward to working with the committee, and also the Congress, on this.”