ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao is used to sharing the stage with presidents, dignitaries, and experts when she attends an event.
Last Tuesday in Michigan was a little different as it marked the first time she shared the spotlight with no one; at least no one at the wheel of any of the cars when she rolled out the Trump administration's initial recommendations for how autonomous vehicles could be regulated.
While the local elected officials, university dignitaries, and business leaders were thrilled to have Chao and the program at the university, it was clear the dozen or so driverless cars were the stars of the show.
"This is such a great moment for this country; driverless cars are coming and America is rightly at the forefront of the technology to perfect and produce this new way to transport people," Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., told the Washington Examiner at the event.
"The potential to change mobility obstacles in this country is limitless, now the elderly, or blind or disabled will have the same mobility freedoms that the rest of us have. It is good for the economy, and it is an incredible opportunity for members of both parties to come together on something that is cutting edge, safer and reinvigorates the auto industry," she said.
The rollout was held at the University of Michigan's North Campus, which has been turned into a full-scale diorama of Main Street America called MCity. The "city" is as complex as any American city normally would be, filled with traffic lights, intersections, various traffic signs, sidewalks, mailboxes, orange construction barrels, and wayward students on bicycles. Those students are purposely called upon to cycle recklessly to test the autonomous technology.
Calling the simulated city a "very special place" Chao introduced the Transportation Department's vision as "a vision for Safety 2.0."
"And this is not a static document," Chao said. "We are already working on version 3.0 and incorporating issues like cybersecurity as the industry gains momentum," she said of the guidelines for the mobility industry.
"As the technology advance and the department gathers new and more information from stakeholders and consumers, we will continue to refine and update this guidance," Chao said, but added, ultimately the future lies with the consumer.
"They will decide the future of this industry, they will decide the future of automated technology including when and how it arrives," Chao said.
Chao isn't just the face of the Trump administration's delve into the arena of high technology and innovation with the autonomous vehicles, an area that will change the lives of people with mobility issues such as the elderly, disabled, and the blind, but also change how goods and services are delivered. She is also the face of the much anticipated and upcoming infrastructure package she said she has been coordinating with 16 federal agencies and departments for the president.
She said during an exclusive interview after the event that the administration's much anticipated infrastructure plan would be laid out this fall and that it would give preference and a greater share of federal dollars to projects that incorporate technology and innovation.
Chao has a unique proximity to power in Washington, as a member of President Trump's Cabinet and wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. But she said she does not view her life or accomplishments or relationships as a quest for power.
"I see my goals as a dedication to service my country, a country I am so proud and thankful to be part of," she said.
In 1961, Chao boarded a train in Taiwan with her two sisters and mother to catch a cargo ship bound for California. She was eight years old, spoke no English, and was about to begin a new life in Queens, N.Y., where her father had been living in a one-bedroom apartment for a year.
Chao became a citizen at 19 and was admitted first to Holyoke University for her undergraduate degree, then to Harvard Business School. Then, she headed to the White House for a fellowship in the Reagan administration.
She went on to become the director of the Peace Corps under President George H.W. Bush, president of The United Way during the Clinton years, and secretary of labor in the George W. Bush administration. She was his longest serving Cabinet member; her service over two terms made her the longest serving labor secretary since Franklin D. Roosevelt's.
Washington Examiner: How do you view yourself in terms of your relationship between President Trump and Sen. McConnell?
Chao: I never think about the word power, and I don't use the word powerful. I feel as if I'm so privileged to be able to be in a position to serve my country. And because of my various experiences, and coming here with very little, and having advanced, and because of the great opportunities that were afforded to me, I want to ensure that the opportunities of this country remain available to everyone. And so in that perspective, I don't think of it as powerful, I think it's more service. We have an opportunity to serve. And how privileged all three of us are to be in these positions. I have had a tremendous career. I've been so blessed. But I would say that the most fulfilling aspect of all the jobs that I've had, the most fulfilling one has been to serve in the federal government. We have an opportunity in this administration to turn the country in a direction that many of us feel would lead to greater economic prosperity, and create more jobs, and make available a better quality of life for our citizens and our residents.
Washington Examiner: What are your goals as secretary of transportation? When you sat down with the president when you first took the Cabinet position, what were some of the things the two of you discussed about what you wanted to achieve?
Chao: There are three goals. Three themes. One is safety, which is always number one. Number two, the president wants to have an infrastructure proposal, 16 different agencies have been working together for the last few months on an infrastructure proposal that we hope will be available to be unveiled later on this fall. The principles were unveiled around middle of May. We are now filling in the principles, working on legislative text language, so we hope to have that out by the latter part of the fall. And then thirdly, the third theme or goal is to look to the future, which is why I am here today in MCity in Michigan. To talk about autonomous vehicles and automated driving systems and what that means for us, for our country. And for so many swaths of our population that hitherto have not had mobility freedom. Autonomous vehicles and automated driving systems can give freedom to the elderly and to the disabled. So it had great potential. We're giving them their freedom back. It's very powerful.
Washington Examiner: What does it mean to you personally to have faced all of the obstacles that you did as an immigrant who came to this country with little money and no understanding of the language to find yourself serving not one, but two U.S. presidents?
Chao: I think first it says volumes about America. What a great country this is, and how open we are, and the opportunities that we have in this country. That's something that can only happen in America. And my parents are incredibly inspiring people. I come from a family of six daughters in Asian culture, and my parents were very empowering of their daughters. But first and foremost, they instilled within us a tremendous appreciation for this country and the opportunities that it offers. And they would always say, "Only in America."
Washington Examiner: One of the things I observed about you during your husband's re-election to the U.S. Senate in Kentucky is your ability to connect with people in a very real and earnest way.
Chao: I love our American parades! I love the pageantry and energy that you know so many people worked so hard to pull off behind the scenes, especially in a small town. Every time I go to one, I want to meet everyone. I'm an immigrant, so one of my goals when I was a young child, and I couldn't afford it, of course, was to see America. So in my career, I've had the wonderful privilege and opportunity to see America.
And I'm now a Kentuckian, and I've gone to all 120 counties of Kentucky, and I get to see wonderful parts about our country.
Washington Examiner: Kentucky is so removed from the world of Washington and politics, what do you find that you love most about Kentucky when you and the senator get to go home?
Chao: Without a doubt, it is the people. I tell people all of the time, "Come to Kentucky. You'll find the friendliest, nicest people in Kentucky." And that we have Kentucky Derby, and we have mint juleps and the Louisville Cardinals, we also have the UK [University of Kentucky] Wildcats, and this Saturday, we've got football season. So, I'm gonna go tailgate.
Washington Examiner: How big of a football fan are you? Do you face-paint? Not yet?
Chao: [Laughing] Well, not quite.