Trump Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao Seems Confused About Self-Driving Cars

The secretary discussed autonomous vehicles in a recent interview on FOX Business. 

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Like it or not, Trump administration Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao happens to be presiding over America's vehicles and infrastructure at a particularly auspicious time. The next four years are likely to be some of the most transformative in the last hundred years when it comes to transportation; ride-hailing and ride-sharing are growing in popularity, electric vehicles are on track to take up an exponentially larger share of the new car market...and of course, cars are likely to begin driving themselves. 

But in a recent interview, Chao expressed some apparent confusion as to just how far along autonomous vehicles have already come. 

"We have now self-driving cars," Chao told FOX Business's Maria Bartiromo in an interview. "We have Level 2 self-driving cars. They can drive on the highway, follow the white lines on the highway, and there's really no need for any person to be seated and controlling any of the instruments. And now we're also seeing self-driving trains that are possible, self-driving planes.”

The secretary's description of Level 2 autonomy, however, conflicts the traditional definition set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That standard is based on the Society of Automotive Engineers standards for vehicle automation, which defines Level 2 autonomy as "partial automation," in which a human driver must remain attentive to the driving environment. 

While some vehicles with Level 2 autonomy, such as Tesla cars equipped with Autopilot, are capable of driving on their own under select circumstances, most manufacturers have installed safeguards requiring drivers to stay alert—such as forcing them to keep one hand on the wheel—while using the system. 

Chao also seemed to claim that Level 2 self-driving vehicles were likely safer than more advanced ones.

“I think the public is concerned about the safety. Not knowing very much—there are different levels of technology, and they're being worked out," she said. "So at a Level 2, is probably safer than a Level 5 or a Level 4 self-driving car."

The secretary's remarks seem, at first blush, to suggest that she believes current Level 2 autonomous vehicles are safer than current Level 4 or 5 ones. There's only one problem with that assumption: No Level 4 or 5 self-driving car is currently believed to exist. Current autonomous test vehicles, such as Uber's Volvos, Waymo's Chryslers, or Cruise Automation's Chevy Bolts, all still require a human driver behind the wheel to make sure things work acceptably well, putting them at Level 3. 

Ford—which has been conducting extensive research into self-driving cars—is advocating for skipping over Level 3 autonomy entirely, on the grounds that removing the driver entirely is safer than asking the operator to half-ass it behind the wheel. The carmaker, which a recent study claimed is leading the global pack in terms of autonomous car development, has declared its intention to release a Level 4 self-driving car for ride-hailing by 2021

Chao, who is the wife of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, served as deputy secretary of transportation under George H.W. Bush from 1989 to 1991, following a stint in the organization's Maritime Administration.