Elaine Chao Says Deregulation Should Smooth the Way for Autonomous Vehicles

Transportation secretary promises a string of Department of Transportation initiatives to remove barriers to tech development.

Bill Pugliano—Getty Images

To hear transportation secretary Elaine Chao tell it, all that's stands between consumers and a fully functional autonomous vehicle ecosystem are a few pesky regulations. Addressing a group of reporters at the North American International Auto Show, in Detroit, she laid out three initiatives the US department of transportation had undertaken to spur development of driverless cars.

"Autonomous vehicles hold the promise not only of improved safety, but also improved mobility," she said, highlighting unlicensed teens, the elderly, and Americans living in rural areas as the most likely beneficiaries of the new technology. "The department of transportation has a vital role to play in shaping this technology."

Chao called the first of the three DOT initiatives she discussed in Detroit "AV 3.0." It consists of updated guidelines for autonomous cars, light trucks, and commercial carriers. The second initiative is a series of official requests to the transportation industry to identify regulations that hinder innovation (the initial request was published Jan. 10). The third: the DOT Safety Data Initiative, an effort by the department to integrate safety information to make it more accessible to technology developers and regulators.

"These are just three initiatives to spur innovation and promote safety, and there are more to come," Chao said.

Whether or not you agree with the Trump Administration's give-power-back-to-the-states deregulation agenda, there are a few government safety standards that, while applicable to traditional human-piloted passenger cars, don't have much bearing on autonomous vehicles. Steering wheels, pedals, and external mirrors, while not needed in a driverless car, are required by federal law.

"There's a push from the administration toward paring down the federal government, but automakers don't want to deal with states on an individual basis—they want uniformity," said Egil Juliussen, research director for IHS Markit. "Manufacturers are going to states that don't have any rules to establish themselves there, and other states will see that and want to compete. They won't want to be left behind."

Of course, AVs are nothing new. Google-affiliated Waymo has already logged four million miles of real-world road testing in the San Francisco Bay area, Phoenix, Austin, Kirkland, Wash. and Michigan over the past six years. General Motors has been at it for the past year and a half, testing its autonomous Chevrolet Bolt in San Francisco and slated to test later this year in Manhattan. Ford and Uber are testing in Pittsburgh. In California alone, 50 companies, including Apple, Volkswagen, Tesla Motors, Bosch, Lyft, and Samsung, hold road testing permits for AVs.

Of course, states have different rules regarding autonomous vehicle testing, but where motor vehicle laws are concerned, that's par for the course. Juliussen suggested that since states are the entities that issue driver's licenses, they could also certify the vehicle systems that would be driving cars in the future.

"If a driver needs a driver's license, why shouldn't a self-driving car need a driver's license?" he said. "That's where the states would come in, although states don't have much expertise yet in certifying motor vehicles."

If it seems as if the nationwide progress of AVs from test track to traffic has been slow, it's most likely because the public is afraid of them. Quoting a recent AAA survey, Chao said that 75 percent of Americans reported being afraid to ride in a self-driving car.

"There are legitimate public concerns that must be addressed before driverless cars can take place in our society," Chao said.

Juliussen said a lot of that was based upon misunderstanding, and that incremental introduction of AVs would get people used to them.

For now, it appears that Chao's regulatory focus will home in on technological developments. Although regulations covering driver controls and vehicle construction may begin to change soon, safety regulations, says Sam Abuelsamid, an analyst for Navigant Research, are unlikely to change much over the next 15 years.

"If they are proven reliable and safe, occupant safety requirements could also be rolled back on the assumption that the vehicles won’t crash," he said. "The administration hasn’t really been specific about anything so far, so it’s hard to say for sure what they want to do other than cancel all regulations everywhere."

Abuelsamid says DOT should be establishing performance requirements for sensing systems, as well as creating rules related to data logging and retention. But he expressed doubt that any new rules would be floated under the current administration. The department would, Chao said, encourage new safety technologies to create an enticing array of choices from which state lawmakers could choose.

"The department will not be in the business of picking winners and losers, or favoring one type of technology over another," she said. "None of us know the future, but we are looking for insights into how the department can help this technology evolve."

Although Chao said the technology was advancing quickly, it will take a while for programmers, manufacturers, and regulators to sort everything out. So unless you live in one of the handful of places slated to get driverless taxi programs, don't expect to see them cruising your block anytime soon. As far as a transformation of America's roads into high-tech superhighways, Abuelsamid says: not so fast.

"We have more than 270 million vehicles registered in this country that aren’t going to be scrapped in the next decade, and we have a lot of technology issues to resolve in the near term to make autonomous vehicles work everywhere all the time," he said. "We also have public perception and infrastructure support issues, not to mention the whole area of cybersecurity. If someone finds a way to tap in and tell a hundred, a thousand or a million cars to all turn left now, the whole thing grinds to a halt."

Abuelsamid also pointed out that few, if any, of the first generations of AVs are likely to be sold directly to consumers, going instead into fleets like the ones already testing them. Still, the number of driverless cars in existence continues to grow. IHS projected that by 2019, there will be 8,000 AVs sold. That number is expected to pass the million mark by 2026, and could be as high as 30 million by 2040.