WASHINGTON (Feb. 1, 2017) — The U.S. Senate voted 93-6 on Jan. 31 to confirm Elaine Chao as head of the U.S. Transportation Department, which overseas aviation, vehicle, train and pipeline safety.
Ms. Chao, a former U.S. labor secretary and deputy transportation secretary, will face key decisions on how to regulate the growing use of drones and auto makers' plans to offer self-driving cars.
She was the first Asian-American woman to hold a Cabinet position when she served as Labor Secretary from 2001 through 2009 under President George W. Bush. She previously was the Transportation Department's deputy secretary under President George H.W. Bush.
President Donald Trump has signaled the key role Chao will play as the administration carries out his campaign pledge to revitalize U.S. infrastructure with up to $1 trillion in funding, a goal that will require broad support from Congress. Trump, in his nomination announcement, called her record and experience "invaluable assets in our mission to rebuild our infrastructure in a fiscally responsible manner."
Mr. Trump has announced plans to invest $550 billion in highway, airport and other infrastructure projects.
The Transportation Department has a $75 billion annual budget and about 60,000 employees.
Ms. Chao will confront significant changes in the transportation landscape brought about by new technologies such as vehicle automation, in addition to long-standing challenges such as auto safety recalls that have tested established approaches to regulating the auto industry.
"Secretary Chao is an experienced leader, and an excellent choice for this important position," Ziad Ojakli, Ford Motor Co.'s group vice president of government and community relations, said following Ms. Chao's nomination. "Her knowledge and expertise will be an asset to the incoming administration."
Among Ms. Chao's tasks will be deciding how to advance or revamp the Obama administration's guidance for autonomous vehicle deployment issued in September.
Another will be shaping the direction of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the DOT agency in charge of regulating auto safety.
Under previous Administrator Mark Rosekind, the agency adopted a more aggressive enforcement stance following a string of high profile, deadly vehicle defects.
It has also pursued voluntary, non-binding initiatives to advance safety, such as a deal with most major auto makers to make automatic emergency braking systems a standard feature on all new light vehicles by 2022.
At her confirmation hearing earlier this month, Ms. Chao declined to take positions on a number of issues, including whether air traffic control jobs should be privatized, concerns over the safety of shipments of crude oil by rail, foreign airlines' push to move into the U.S. market and regulation of developing technologies.
AAA Inc., the largest U.S. auto club with more than 50 million members, praised Ms. Chao's confirmation. AAA CEO Marshall Doney said the group "firmly believes that significant, additional investments are needed to maintain existing infrastructure and to enhance the nation's (transportation) system."
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents major U.S. and foreign automakers, said that from "autonomous vehicles to safety to fuel efficiency to infrastructure, Secretary Chao's leadership will profoundly impact our sector and many others."
Ms. Chao came to the U.S. from Taiwan with her parents at age 8 "speaking no English" according to a biography on her website. After graduating from Harvard Business School, Chao worked at Citicorp and Bank of America before she was tapped to be Deputy Administrator of the U.S. Maritime Administration within the Transportation Department, according to her biography. She later rose to be the department's No. 2 official.
She is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Ms. Chao has been a member of Wells Fargo's board of directors since 2011, and is on the board of News Corp. Since June, she's been a distinguished fellow at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think-tank in Washington.
This story appeared originally on the website of Automotive News, a Detroit-based sister publication of Tire Busines. Reuters and Bloomberg contributed to this report.