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Transport secretary Elaine Chao needs to update DoT policy, says automation expert

Newly appointed US transport secretary Elaine Chao is being asked to go out and “do better” than the previous administration and “explain in plain language” her recipe for success.  

In particular, Chao is being asked to give the testing and regulation of autonomous cars a national framework rather than allow the technology to be introduced in a haphazard way, with each state making its own rules as it goes along.

This is the suggestion of many experts from the world of business and academia, including one particularly outspoken expert Timothy Carone, an associate teaching professor in the Department of IT, Analytics, and Operations in the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. 

Carone says the transport secretary needs to chow down on the regulations, and see things from the consumers’ point of view, but perhaps more importantly, she needs to say chao to the attitude which is preventing the greater supervision of how the technology is developing.

Carone balanced his observations of Department of Transport policy by welcoming the transport secretary’s decision to conduct a wholesale review of the autonomous car sector.

Chao recently announced she was reviewing the self-driving vehicle guidance issued by the Obama administration, and has shown she appreciates how attractive the technology must seem to some sectors of industry and to the public, but says she is concerned people might be getting too rosy a picture – there are potential negative impacts on employment, which was her previous responsibility as labor secretary.

In one of her first public briefings as transport secretary, Chao said: “The new automated technologies have the potential of dramatically changing commercial transportation and private travel, expanding access for millions within our borders.

“Automated technology has the potential to help eliminate human error and reduce crashes and fatalities significantly.”

She added that she will also be keeping her eyes on how the technology affects sectors such as logistics, where driverless trucks are being tested and introduced. “As a former secretary of labor I’m very concerned about that,” said Chao. “We do have to transition people [into other careers] and keep that in mind.”

In a response, automation expert Carone says: “The general public and the companies involved in all aspects of developing and operating driverless cars should welcome Secretary Chao’s approach.

Tim Carone
Tim Carone, criticising government transport policy. (Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame)

“There is a need to explain in plain language the significant benefits of driverless cars.

“These cars are more like a Google data center than the muscle cars we all grew up with over the past decades.

“Car companies and their partners need to shape the thinking on this complex topic and should have an articulated effort to sell the benefits of driverless cars to the public now. Best to do it on a national stage rather than having to do it one state at a time.

“The Federal Automated Vehicles Policy issued in September by the Department of Transportation was an amorphous first step in a long journey. DoT published what it could because it had to publish something.

“The approach to regulating the evolution of autonomous vehicles is less about regulating car operations than it is about managing the evolution of complex software systems.

“The policy sought to provide room for innovators to evolve the technology while also punishing companies when things go wrong.

“DoT needs to do better and that appears to be the approach Secretary Chao outlined in her comments.”

A former astrophysicist, Carone specializes in data science, business intelligence, data mining, artificial intelligence and data security. He is the author of Future Automation – Changes to Lives and to Businesses.

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