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Transportation Secretary Nominee Wants Agency to ‘Keep Pace’ with Innovation

Transportation Secretary-designate Elaine Chao testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017.

Transportation Secretary-designate Elaine Chao testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017. // Zach Gibson/AP

Elaine Chao, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to head the Transportation Department, wants to bring the agency back to speed in technology and innovation.

Testifying Wednesday during a confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Chao said the department’s failure to keep up with evolving technologies has kept it from maximizing otherwise promising gains public mobility, safety and security.

“Today, these gains are jeopardized by infrastructure in need of repair, the specter of rising highway fatalities, growing congestion, and by a failure to keep pace with emerging technologies,” Chao said.

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Chao’s track record in the federal government likely makes her among the least controversial of Trump’s appointments. She previously served under President George H.W. Bush as the DOT deputy secretary and later became Labor secretary under President George W. Bush. Her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., introduced her at the hearing. 

Chao showcased her knowledge of emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles and drones, and opined on DOT’s wide-ranging role in helping facilitate the safe proliferation of those technologies.

Internally, DOT faced questions in December after it earned the lowest grade among all agencies in implementing the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act, vital to improving the efficiency of the agency’s IT. When asked by Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., about the economic and public impact these technologies could have and her personal views on them, she answered diplomatically, promising to facilitate dialogue between the Trump administration and the 115th Congress.

“The advent of autonomous smart cars, AI and drones—while the benefits are known—there are also concerns about how they will continue to develop,” Chao said. “I want to work with Congress, and I’m committed to addressing those concerns, but do so in a way not to dampen the creativity of our country.”

Probed by Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., about the government’s overregulation of drone commercialization, Chao called for a national discussion regarding emerging technologies, suggesting the security and privacy issues were too important for a single person or department to unilaterally address.

“There are those who see the benefits of commercializing drones for various uses and transforming the way we work and do commerce, but there are also others concerned about privacy issues and security issues,” Chao said. “Moving forward with emerging technologies with vast implications for our future, we need to talk about it and have a national consensus. A state-by-state patchwork is a concern.”

Commerce Committee Ranking Member Bill Nelson, D-Fla., emphasized the importance of bipartisanship regarding Trump’s proposed $1 trillion infrastructure plan and asked for Chao’s thoughts on how it might be done. Chao said details on the plan would likely come soon after Trump is inaugurated, but agreed with Nelson it wouldn’t succeed without bipartisan support.

“As the infrastructure proposal is being put together, we will certainly be in discussion with Congress. We cannot do it on our own,” Chao said.

The Senate committee’s respect for Chao showed during more than three hours of testimony. Repeatedly, Chao responded to committee questions with promises to work together with the individual senator or that she needed to be briefed before she could properly answer. She rarely faced a modicum of pushback—a far cry from the concurrent contentious hearings of Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson and Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions.

Lightheartedly, Thune closed the committee hearing with a question not about tech, transportation or policy.

“Kentucky or Louisville?” Thune asked, referencing the college basketball rivalry between the two Kentucky schools.

“I’ll take a pass on that,” Chao answered.

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