By Erika Fry
October 2, 2018

What does the U.S. Secretary of Transportation think about self-driving cars?

Elaine Chao, speaking at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit at Laguna Niguel, Calif., Tuesday morning, noted that the nation is on the cusp of transformation in transportation and technology that will change the way Americans work, move, and connect.

She commented that her department is “technology neutral” and that the role of her agency—which has a budget of $88 billion—is to regulate the safety and security of vehicles without hampering innovation.

She dismissed the notion that her department had been lax in regulating new autonomous vehicles. “I have besieged Silicon Valley,” she said, adding that she thinks traditional carmakers and newer players need to team up.

“All the high-tech companies, they know technology and they have such an interesting future they envision for our world. The older, traditional auto manufacturers know safety. They need to work together.”

The tragic incident involving the death of a pedestrian struck by an autonomous vehicle in Tempe, Ariz., earlier this year should serve as a cautionary tale for innovators, she said.

“If Silicon Valley does not make the rest of us more comfortable about technology, then consumer acceptance will be the constraint,” she said, adding, “We’re not removing all risks [with autonomous vehicles]. The risk is just moving from the human to the software program.”

Chao and her team are also trying to figure out what do about drones. She explained there are 1.2 million drones currently registered in the U.S., and that they can be used by wide-ranging parties, from hobbyists to commercial interests, in most conditions. She noted that law enforcement and the military, in particular, have concerns about the burgeoning airborne technology. Her agency is currently running pilot programs across the country to inform future regulation.

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