Transportation

Transportation chief: Driverless car work will survive Trump

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Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx is confident his work on autonomous vehicles will survive under the Trump administration, even in the absence of any final rules on the topic.

Flexible guidance and draft rules, which have been pumped out by the outgoing administration over the last few months, were meant to serve as a foundation that can be built upon, Foxx told reporters Wednesday afternoon.

“I think the autonomous vehicle guidance is a seminal document for transportation. It is the most comprehensive document of its kind in the world,” Foxx said. “The framework it lays out, I believe, will stand up over time.”

In September, the Department of Transportation (DOT) released highly anticipated guidelines for self-driving cars. They include a voluntary 15-point safety assessment, which the DOT said should eventually go through the formal rulemaking process.

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Foxx has also said that the guidance should be updated annually so that it can evolve with the emerging technology.

“It doesn’t answer every question. It doesn’t pretend to. In fact, it lays out questions that need to be addressed over time,” he said. “That’s where the work is. It was intended to leave room for future building blocks.”

The driverless car industry, which had pleaded with federal regulators for a more flexible approach that doesn’t hamper innovation, has generally supported the guidelines. They feared the absence of any federal framework would lead to a messy patchwork of state laws.

But the flexible approach and absence of final rules also means it would be easier for the next administration to change course.

There are some expectations that President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for Transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, may go hands-off when it comes to regulations.

Chao ran the Department of Labor under Former President George W. Bush and served as deputy Transportation secretary in the George H.W. Bush administration. During her tenure at the Department of Labor, the department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration didn’t issue any major safety regulations.

“You can expect to see her take a very light touch. I think you could characterize her as a reluctant regulator,” said Thomas O. McGarity, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

“She has certainly in the past demonstrated a strong commitment to letting the markets function as they will,” added McGarity, who authored “Freedom to Harm,” a book about the Labor Department when Chao was there.

Some autonomous vehicle experts have said it’s possible that Chao keeps the driverless car guidelines as voluntary, instead of taking them through rulemaking, as intended.

Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), co-chair of the Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus, acknowledged that Chao is going to be facing “a big choice” on the driverless car guidelines.

“Are they going to continue with that, or say we’re going to scrap this and come up with something new?” he said.

Foxx has generally brushed aside concerns about whether the incoming administration would scrap any of the proposed regulations that have already been put forward by the DOT.

The agency released a draft rule this week requiring all new cars and trucks to be equipped with communication technology that allows them to “talk” to each other and thus avoid crashes.

“This rule is something that has been contemplated for years,” Foxx said during a press call on Tuesday. “I can’t speak for next administration, but I can say from a safety perspective, this is a no-brainer.”

Tags Anthony Foxx Donald Trump Elaine Chao

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