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U.S. transportation secretary describes the ‘greatest constraint’ to self-driving cars

Melody Hahm
Senior Writer

Silicon Valley is busy crafting a future filled with drones, flying cars and everything in between, but none of it will matter if consumers don’t get on board.

Consumer acceptance is the “greatest constraint to growth,” said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao.

Chao, who is at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, meeting with various groups to discuss the future of transportation, told Yahoo Finance she is learning more about how government can encourage technologies while mitigating security and safety concerns.

Particularly with developments like self-driving cars that seem inevitable yet shrouded in secrecy and uncertainty, Chao said it’s imperative that technologists get buy-in from the very consumers they’re attempting to help.

“I ask the automobile manufacturers and Silicon Valley that they help people become more comfortable [with their technology],” Chao said in an interview with Yahoo Finance at WEF, on Thursday.  Citing the finding that 64% of Americans are anxious about sharing the road with autonomous vehicles, she emphasized the importance of educating individuals in an approachable manner.

Ninety-four percent of accidents occur because of human error. If we are able to reduce that error rate or reduce the role that humans play, we actually can reduce accidents and increase safety,” she said.

Additionally, the technology has the ability to radically transform the lives of two groups, in particular — the disabled and the elderly.

“One of the hardest things you can do is take away the car keys from someone who really shouldn’t be driving. Think of the freedom that people with disabilities and the aging population [will get back],” she said.

Full speed ahead on self-driving tech

Chao, who has privately met with leaders at the Detroit Auto Show and CES over the past month, has made self-driving innovation a core focus of hers.

Traditional automakers, tech companies and ride-hailing giants have been vehemently pushing for more leeway to experiment with their technology. In addition to cross-industry business partnerships, Ford, Lyft, Uber, Volvo and Waymo even formed the Self-Driving Coalition for Safety Streets in 2016 to gain a stronger foothold and gain more negotiating power with the government about industry oversight. Chao plans to roll out updated regulations this summer.

“Part of the policymaker’s responsibility is to prepare for the future. While there may be differences as to when automated vehicles will come into everyday life, the reality is, it’s going to happen,” Chao told Yahoo Finance.

“We at the department want to make sure that we are addressing legitimate concerns about safety, security and privacy while not hampering the growth and the innovation in this sector. As Americans, the innovation and the creativity that’s occurring in this sector is part of our competitive advantage,” she added.

Elsewhere in Davos, Jim Coulter, co-founder of TPG, an early investor in Uber, Airbnb and Spotify, suggested that it always takes time for any innovation to be widely adopted.

“If you look over the history of technological innovation, it always takes society somewhere from 10 to 20 years to figure out how to regulate and how to societize technological changes,” he said. “When the automobile was created, it took 60 years before seat belts were required.”

Melody Hahm is a senior writer at Yahoo Finance, covering entrepreneurship, technology and real estate. Follow her on Twitter @melodyhahm.

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