Trump official: Self-driving cars must benefit rural communities, not just cities

A driver presents a Cruising Chauffeur, a hands free self-driving system designed for motorways during a media event by Continental to showcase new automotive technologies on June 20, 2017 in Hannover, Germany.
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A top Trump administration official said it's vital for the auto industry to ensure that self-driving cars help improve life in rural communities and not just urban areas.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao also hailed the "tremendous potential" of self-driving vehicles to improve automotive safety and drive economic growth.

Her comments Sunday at the Detroit auto show signaled that the Trump administration will take a favorable approach to the industry's aggressive push into autonomous vehicle technologies.

But she also said that automakers need to ensure that self-driving cars are accessible to people who live outside big cities.

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"We want to be inclusive as well and consider how this technology can benefit rural America," Chao said in an interview on the sidelines of the auto show.

Automakers and tech companies are making great strides in delivering self-driving cars, but they are likely to be first available in ride-sharing fleets in urban environments.

"That’s great, but not everyone lives downtown," Chao said in a speech at the North American International Auto Show. "And it is worth noting that rural America accounts for a disproportionately large share of highway fatalities. So, automated technology (has) an important role to play in rural mobility and safety."

Chao's praise for the potential of self-driving cars comes a few days after General Motors requested federal permission to test self-driving vehicles without steering wheels, brakes and acceleration pedals.

The vehicles would hit the road in ride-sharing fleets in 2019 in several major cities that have been fully digitally mapped.

"The petition states it would use automated vehicles with no human drivers, and no human driver controls," Chao said. "So, it is not an exaggeration to suggest that these technology developments are happening very quickly."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is charged with assessing GM's application.

But the agency, like many others, has experienced significant turnover following the Trump administration's takeover, raising questions about whether it can act quickly. Nearly a year after Trump took office, NHTSA still has an acting administrator.

"We will assess the petition seriously and responsibly and the career folks at NHTSA are top-notch professionals," Chao told USA TODAY. "So I am confident that we have the capabilities."

Chao also signaled support for an industry push to ensure that regulations on self-driving regulations are uniform across the country, avoiding a regulatory patchwork that could slow innovation.

"You are the vanguard of a transportation future that will be safer, more accessible, and more efficient. The gains in mobility from automated technology will help our country remain competitive, and create a better quality of life and brighter futures for so many," Chao said. "So let me challenge you to step up and educate the public more fully about the tremendous potential and benefits of this new technology."