Trump’s pick for transportation secretary could be good for companies with self-driving ambitions


Here are some of her previous stances on issues that may affect the transportation industry.

Donald Trump will reportedly nominate Elaine Chao — the former secretary of labor under the Bush administration who also served as the deputy secretary of transportation under the previous Bush administration — to be the Department of Transportation secretary.

Given both Trump’s promises of a lighter regulatory arena and Chao’s public views on how to regulate new technologies, her appointment may be a good thing for companies like Uber, Google and others with self-driving ambitions.

If Chao’s nomination is confirmed, the Beltway insider will be taking over the agency at a crucial time for the industry. Under current Secretary Anthony Foxx, the DOT has made significant progress on self-driving technology and is in the middle of soliciting comments on its most recent regulatory guidelines on the testing and deployment of autonomous cars.

Here are some of the industry’s most pressing issues that are left to be sorted by the Trump administration and how some of Chao’s previous stances may impact the transportation industry.

Infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure

First and foremost, Donald Trump’s priority — and perhaps by extension Chao’s — is his $1 trillion infrastructure plan to repair the country’s roads, bridges and tunnels.

That could mean two things: Self-driving regulations may not be at the top of Chao’s agenda but the DOT and Chao have the opportunity to work with the tech and transportation industries to create roads and infrastructure that are friendly to autonomous tech.

Trump only briefly mentioned self-driving technology during his campaign and Chao has made very few public statements on transportation technology save for a speech she gave on labor as it relates to companies like Uber — we’ll get to that in a minute.

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Trump’s infrastructure plan is focused on refurbishing the country’s bridges and roads which in turn will ostensibly create jobs. But there’s a significant opportunity to create roads that will survive the self-driving revolution.

However, Trump has made little attempt to reach out to the tech industry and has gone after automakers like Ford and GM for outsourcing some of its manufacturing to Mexico.

Here’s where Chao can become particularly useful. The Taiwanese-American politician has been described as an “ambitious operator” with an “expansive network” who almost immediately reached out to the then-president of the AFL-CIO when President Bush chose her to be the DOL secretary. In other words, she knows when and how to reach out to the relevant stakeholders.

That will be increasingly important because the introduction of self-driving technology may require a complete reimagination of how cities and roads work, especially with the implementation of technology that enables vehicle-to-infrastructure communication.

From the gig economy to self-driving cars

Uber and Lyft, as well as the Self-Driving Coalition — the lobbyist group representing the two companies in addition to Google and Volvo — are seemingly pleased with Trump’s choice.

“We welcome the opportunity to work with [Elaine Chao] on bringing the safety and mobility benefits of fully self-driving vehicles to America’s roads and highways,” the Self-Driving Coalition’s General Counsel David Strickland wrote in a statement.

“We have the utmost respect for Elaine Chao, an accomplished public servant and highly capable leader,” Adrian Durbin, Lyft’s spokesperson, told Recode.

Uber’s head of federal affairs, Niki Christoff, echoed Lyft’s sentiment and said, “Ms. Chao’s knowledge of transportation issues is extensive and we look forward to working closely with her.”

Uber and Lyft’s approval of Trump’s pick is likely tied to her comments on the gig economy during a speech at an American Action Forum event.

While Chao is unlikely to be making many labor decisions as the head of the DOT, her praise of the “flexibility” independent contractor models like Uber’s afforded workers is a good sign for these sharing-economy companies.

In her speech, she specifically bemoaned any attempt to “impose the old paradigm on the new workforce” as opposed to creating a new system of benefits and protections for workers.

That outlook in particular bodes well for how she may choose to regulate new technologies. Her comments generally point to a progressive approach that works to avoid forcing new technologies to operate under “antiquated” laws.

This is especially significant given Chao will have the power to completely buck the current voluntary self-driving guidelines the DOT has implemented, which many companies are largely in favor of save for some questions that remain regarding things like data sharing.

But what about jobs?

Given her work in labor, it’s also worth watching if and how Chao will deal with the implications self-driving technology will have on the country’s workforce. At the end of her tenure as DOL secretary, Chao was criticized by the AFL-CIO for siding with corporations over workers when there were union disputes. (Chao believed her critics were partisan and unfair.)

So far, there have been little to no regulatory conversations about what role either the corporations that once employed drivers and are now replacing them with robots or the government should and will have to play as hundreds of thousands of people are at risk of losing their jobs.

If her comments on the gig economy — which seem to suggest relieving corporations of the responsibility of providing benefits to their contractors and instead puts the onus on the government to come up with new legal solutions — are any indication, Chao may leave the labor implications of autonomous technology to regulators.

The Transportation Trades Department, a segment of the AFL-CIO, welcomed Chao’s nomination but emphasized the need to “oppose the agenda of special interests.”

“Transforming the president-elect’s campaign commitments on transportation and jobs into reality will require leadership and a willingness to stand up to the dangerous austerity and job-killing proposals being advanced by some in Washington,” Edward Wytkind, president of the Transportation Trades Department, said in a statement.

While much of how she will manage the DOT is up in the air, one thing is clear: She’s a moderate choice for Trump. When Chao was nominated to head up the DOL, the vice president of the Chamber of Commerce said, “We know she shares the president-elect’s views on the limited role of government and supports free-market principles.”

It’s a stance that has self-driving advocates optimistic about what Trump’s administration might hold for the advancement of the technology.

“Extrapolating President-elect Trump’s posture on regulations, he’s clearly looking to having a much lighter regulatory environment,” Strickland said during a press call last week.

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