Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao Doesn’t Seem to Understand Self-Driving Cars

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao is not an authority on self-driving cars.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In an interview with Fox Business on Wednesday, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao misstated government and industry guidelines related to self-driving cars—which is alarming, given that autonomous vehicles are a rapidly growing sector of the business her own department is charged with regulating.

Chao’s error came in response to a question from host Maria Bartiromo that asked about examples of “modernization” and “innovation” within the American transportation market. Here’s how Chao replied:

We have now self-driving cars. 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.

Unfortunately, that last bit’s not quite true. Self-driving cars are indeed on the rise, with companies like Tesla, Cadillac, Mercedes-Benz, Ford, and BMW investing billions of dollars to develop both fully and semiautonomous vehicles.

But Chao’s assertion that “there’s really no need” for human control over the “Level 2” autonomous vehicles she referenced in her answer flies in the face of longstanding industry definitions. Per standards developed in 2014 by SAE International (formerly known as the Society of Automotive Engineers), self-driving cars fall on a spectrum of autonomy that ranges from “Level 0” to “Level 5.” Most cars on the road are Level 0, requiring constant human attention to operate. Although no such car has yet been developed, a Level 5 vehicle wouldn’t require a human driver, pedals, or a steering wheel to operate safely.

But the Level 2 cars Chao mentioned, classified as only partially autonomous, do require human oversight—not only the “instruments” associated with manual control but a constantly attentive human driver. What’s more, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a federal agency that Chao’s own department oversees, adopted SAE International’s classifications of self-driving cars in 2013.

Chao then went on to compound her error, telling Bartiromo later in the interview that “a level two is probably safer than a level five or a level four self-driving car.” But the Verge’s Sean O’Kane notes that despite disagreements that continue to wrack the industry, “few people argue that partial autonomy is safer than full autonomy.” As Will Oremus has written for Slate, having a “human in the loop” can make things more dangerous because drivers on autopilot are unlikely to be mentally prepared to intervene properly on a moment’s notice when things go wrong. Anyway, the Drive’s Will Sabel Courtney observes, “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.”

Chao’s answer is all the more damning in light of her significant experience related to transportation oversight. Unlike many other members of the Trump Cabinet, Chao has a long record of government service. She’s worked for the past two Republican presidents, first as George H. W. Bush’s deputy secretary of transportation and then as secretary of labor under George W. Bush during both of the latter’s terms.

Chao’s tenure coincides with a liminal moment in automotive technology. As the transportation secretary told Bartiromo, self-driving cars are poised to become “a tremendous help to the elderly, who may not be mobile” and “to the disabled, so that they will have more independence, more freedom.” They’re further forecast to make commutes more efficient and increase passenger safety. But autonomous vehicles are also expected to upend industries and threaten jobs related to auto manufacturing, repair, parking, insurance, and real estate. Those disruptions might prove less tumultuous if the head of the department tasked with regulating the businesses they threaten did her homework.