US Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao expressed her openness to self-driving technology after she was appointed by Donald Trump. But in an interview with Fox Business this week, she shared what appears to be a misunderstanding of where the technology currently sits.
Here’s the full quote in question:
We have now self-driving cars. We have level-two 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. And now we're also seeing self-driving trains that are possible, self-driving planes.
The real problem is with this part: “There's really no need for any person to be seated and controlling any of the instruments.” That’s just flat wrong. It’s strange, too, considering Chao’s long history with the transportation industry. It’s at best a bad mistake, and at worst, evidence that she lacks a cursory understanding of how self-driving tech will be deployed. We’ve reached out to Secretary Chao and will update this post when we hear back.
Chao’s claim doesn’t reflect the reality of the semi-autonomous technology that’s available commercially. The Society of Automotive Engineers created the widely accepted scale of autonomy in 2014, which ranges from “Level 0” to “Level 5.” Level 0 is no autonomy, while Level 5 refers to cars that no longer need a steering wheel or pedals because they can perform the entire drive with no human input.
Current self-driving tech requires drivers to pay attention and be ready to take over
Level 2, which Chao references in the interview, is the highest level any current automaker has released on the road. But Level 2 refers to cars that are only able to autonomously drive for part of the trip, so the driver is by definition required to pay attention because they will at some point have to retake control. That means there’s absolutely a need for the driver to remain in their seat in a Level 2 car (despite what some buffoons do in the name of making viral YouTube videos).
Manufacturers that offer Level 2 capabilities, like Tesla or Mercedes-Benz or BMW, often refer to their systems with qualifiers like “Driver Assistance.” Tesla even uses sensors to make sure the driver’s hands are still occasionally touching the steering wheel.
All of which begs the question of why Chao got this wrong. It wasn’t an isolated misunderstanding, either; later in the interview, Chao said that “a level two [car] is probably safer than a level five or a level four self-driving car.” There are certainly disagreements about the safety benefits afforded by the different levels of autonomy. But few people argue that partial autonomy is safer than full autonomy.
It’s important that Chao has an understanding of this going forward because self-driving technology will be passing crucial milestones during her tenure. More states are allowing autonomous testing on public roads, and all the major automakers have announced plans to work on or release self-driving cars.
In the meantime, if you have a car with any kind of driver assistance features, please keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road while you use them.