"We will not pick winners and losers among the developers of these technologies. The government is not that smart," Chao said at the annual Automated Vehicles Symposium in San Francisco on Tuesday.
Chao's pledge not to impose "command and control" regulation of autonomous vehicle development is in line with the administration's general light-regulation approach. But she said the public is looking to the federal and state governments to regulate AVs, especially in the wake of the fatal Arizona crash involving an Uber test vehicle in March.
"The public is increasingly expecting the public and the private sectors to lead by working together to safely develop, test and integrate this new technology into our existing transportation system," Chao said.
The Department of Transportation held a "listening summit" in early March, shortly before the Arizona crash, where the consensus was that the DOT should take the lead role in facilitating communication among all the players in AV development, she said. On Tuesday, she announced the release of the department's report on that meeting.
Among the highlights, participants said they were concerned about what kinds of data should be collected from AVs and who should be able to control and have access to it. They were also interested in how AVs would interact with first responders in emergencies. Most experts think the vehicles will be able to self-report crashes, she said. Cybersecurity, including the danger of terrorists taking over self-driving fleets, was another concern.
AVs may also have a dramatic impact on the job market, said Chao, who served as Secretary of Labor in the George W. Bush administration. They may allow some people with disabilities to get jobs they haven't been able to reach without a car, but it's also likely that automation will put others out of work.
"New technologies will create new jobs, but the transition period can be quite difficult for dislocated workers," Chao said.
The four-day conference, continuing through Thursday, brings together companies, researchers and government officials who want to improve automated driving while making sure AVs are safe -- and eventually economical enough to deploy in large numbers.
So far, one theme that has emerged at the event is the need for standardized testing and verification that manufacturers and regulators can agree on.
The kinds of AV systems that can guide a bus down certain streets at low speeds are a long way from ones that could power a general-purpose car that can go anywhere. Getting to full, go-anywhere autonomy -- so-called Level 5 -- means making sure vehicles are somehow prepared to deal with an infinite number of scenarios that might come up in the real world.
Developers are looking for the best way to prepare for both these "edge cases" and everyday driving. But to build trust in AVs, experts from industry and government say there need to be some common standards for what kinds of performance make the grade. Those are a long way off, they say.
As a starting point, organizations like the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and OICA, a European organization of motor vehicle manufacturers, are developing baseline standards. Even if these aren't uniform around the world, they should eventually help to streamline the introduction of AVs, people from these groups say.
Meanwhile, self-driving car developers in the US still rely mostly on various state and local laws, while federal legislation is stalled in the Senate. The DOT will work with states and localities to avoid a "confusing maze of rules that could inhibit innovation and make it difficult for AVs to cross state lines," Chao said.
— Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.