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Elaine Chao’s hands-off approach to transportation is endangering lives

Loosening future regulations while ignoring present-day problems

Technology driving Uber’s autonomous vehicle program would be brought to market sooner through a new council formed by Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.
AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File

At South by Southwest Tuesday, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced a new regulatory body to speed the adoption of new transportation technologies including “tunneling, hyperloop, autonomous vehicles, and other innovations.”

The creation of what’s being called the Non-Traditional and Emerging Transportation Technology (NETT) council excited SXSW participants in attendance—namely, Virgin Hyperloop One, which eagerly dispatched a press release applauding Chao’s decision to launch the group, scheduled to start meeting as soon as this week.

In a week where the transportation department is facing some of its most pointed criticism in recent memory, Chao has now created a separate council to speed the commercial adoption of untested technologies like driverless vehicles and hyperloops—without addressing the dramatic, necessary changes that industries from automakers to airlines need today.

“There doesn’t seem to be any meaningful enforcement going on,” National Consumers League vice president John Breyault told the Wall Street Journal, in a report that called Chao’s leadership on many issues “invisible” and “passive.”

On Sunday, a Boeing 737 Max 8 crashed after takeoff in Ethiopia, killing all 157 people on board. It was the second Boeing 737 Max 8 to experience a fatal crash in five months. In October, a 737 Max 8 crashed in Indonesia, killing 189 passengers.

When most countries had banned Boeing’s 737 Max 8 from their airspaces, Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao flew on one from Austin to D.C. after the SXSW festival.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Virtually every country on the planet quickly banned the 737 Max 8 from their airspace while the U.S. was still allowing them to fly. Since the top position at the Federal Aviation Administration has been vacant for 14 months—a position that falls under the transportation department’s oversight—the aviation industry clamored for Chao to take a stand. Only late Wednesday was it announced that the U.S. would ground the planes.

Critics blamed Boeing’s ties to the administration, including a former Boeing executive who is acting secretary of defense, for the delay. A bipartisan coalition of Congressional leaders who were calling for the planes to be grounded are now demanding an investigation, including an explanation for why a known problem with the plane’s automated navigation software was not fixed sooner.

At the same time, Chao’s department is actively advancing new transportation policies that are known to be harmful. Last year, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency announced a joint proposal to freeze Obama-era fuel efficiency regulations. A wide coalition of advocacy groups condemned the move, saying it would hurt efforts to reduce emissions and improve public health. Automakers also spoke out against the rollback.

In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal Chao co-wrote with acting EPA director Andrew Wheeler, Chao and Wheeler argued that eliminating fuel-efficiency standards would actually make cars safer. Buying new fuel-efficient cars is too expensive for Americans, leaving older, more dangerous vehicles on the road, the op-ed argues. “A key goal of this rulemaking is to reduce the barriers to enabling Americans to purchase newer, safer, cleaner cars.”

Yet one month later, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that the biggest vehicular safety improvements could be made by changing the way the U.S. makes and sells SUVs and light trucks, gas guzzlers exempt from fuel-efficiency standards that have been proven to be more dangerous for pedestrians. Under Chao’s leadership, pedestrian deaths have gone up dramatically, to numbers not seen since the 1990s.

U.S Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao is praised for her experience in a tumultuous administration—but her lack of leadership on key issues is doing damage.
Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

While Chao brings more experience to her position than most Trump appointees, there are questions about what policies she is devoting her time to working on as secretary.

A Politico investigation which examined 14 months of Chao’s schedules found that her calendar included seven weeks’ worth of “private time,” much of it happening just before key announcements. “It certainly appears that they have just tried to over-redact meetings they would prefer the public not know about,” said a former transportation department official who wanted to remain anonymous.

Another Politico investigation noted extensive coordination between Chao’s office and that of her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Some meetings with Chao’s office were followed by funding being allocated to highway projects in McConnell’s district. During the same period, funding for transit projects across the country was being withheld by the Department of Transportation.

And over two years after it was promised by Chao and the Trump administration, the country still does not have an infrastructure plan in place which could have already been dramatically making transportation safer and more efficient for everyone—including charting out ways to responsibly regulate new technology.

“We’re not in the business of picking winners or losers,” Chao said in March 2018 at a “listening session” on autonomous vehicles, when asked how the government would regulate driverless technology. “The market will decide what is the most effective solution.” Less than two weeks later, a woman was killed by an autonomous vehicle.