US moves toward driverless future. How should the government regulate it?

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Autonomous vehicles will come sooner than many expect: Elaine Chao

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao on autonomous vehicles, the Trump administration's efforts to boost America's infrastructure and the brief government shutdown.

As tech innovators continue to move forward with making self-driving vehicles ubiquitous, the U.S. government could have a new problem on its hands as it grapples with how to regulate what is still a largely-burgeoning industry.

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“The transformative nature of technology in transportation is very exciting,” Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao said during an interview with FOX Business’ Maria Bartiromo at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “But it also cautions us to address issues about safety, security, accessibility, and also privacy.”

When driverless cars actually hit the road remains to be seen, but the race is on. Ford (NYSE:F) announced that it plans to build a fully driverless car for commercial purposes by 2021, and Uber partnered with Volvo to roll out a self-driving fleet. Most likely, Chao said, the switch to automated cars won’t occur as fast as some have predicted, but perhaps sooner than expected.

A large selling point for driverless vehicles is the safety aspect: Roughly 32,000 people are killed and more than 2 million are injured in car crashes every year. More than 90% of those are caused by human error.

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“If we can reduce the human error, we can actually increase safety on our roads,” she said. “And the second issue is accessibility. We look at the elderly, it’s an increasingly aging population worldwide, and also people with disabilities. If they’re able to access automated driving systems, self-driving cars, they will reclaim their freedom. in terms of their quality of life, it is wonderful.”

To prepare for the inevitable, the government has undertaken a regulation role by trying to weigh the creativity and innovation between the security and safety aspects. On Jan. 10, the department issued a several requests to the private sector and the various stakeholders, to help it understand what exactly is hampering innovation in the transportation sector.

It also released voluntary guidelines to states, which are proceeding with regulations on their own -- meaning there may be a patchwork of laws regarding the automatic driving systems across the country. Already, 10 states and Washington, D.C. have enacted some type of legislation related to autonomous vehicles, with several governors issuing executive orders.

Still, one big concern for the government is the possibility of hacks into the computer system behind the driverless technology, which some have warned could turn the vehicles into a weapon.

“That’s where the security comes in, because as you mentioned, if the computer system is compromised, that presents a very large issue, not only on our roads, but potentially in terms of security,” she said. “We need to address legitimate issues about safety concerns, privacy concerns, security concerns as well.”

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