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Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

In President Trump's view, self-driving cars are a menace to society. A skeptic of cutting-edge technology — as his tweets about Boeing's "complex" planes emphasized — Trump has privately said he thinks the autonomous vehicle (AV) revolution is "crazy" and that he'd never let a computer drive him around.

Why it matters: Most Americans share Trump's view: 71% of U.S. drivers would be afraid to ride in a self-driving vehicle, per AAA. Yet his own administration is encouraging AV development by removing barriers and issuing voluntary guidance instead of regulations. And we see no evidence Trump has imposed his personal views on the policy process.

Behind the scenes: In conversations on Air Force One and in the White House, Trump has acted out scenes of self-driving cars veering out of control and crashing into walls. He's said he doesn't think autonomous vehicles make sense, according to four sources who've heard him discuss the subject.

  • "You know when he's telling a story, and he does the hand motions," said a source who has heard Trump talk about hypothetical accidents involving self-driving cars. "He says, 'Can you imagine, you're sitting in the back seat and all of a sudden this car is zig-zagging around the corner and you can't stop the f---ing thing?’"
  • "He's definitely an automated car skeptic," the source said. Another source said Trump told him self-driving cars "will never work."

In one of the early 2017 meetings with CEOs in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Elon Musk and Trump shared a lighthearted exchange about Tesla's "Autopilot" technology. Trump told Musk he preferred traditional cars, according to a source who was in the room.

  • And in the summer of 2017, at his Bedminster golf club, Trump was chatting with club members when one raised the subject of AV technology. The club member was "excited" about a new Tesla he bought, recalled a source who was part of the conversation. "And [Trump] was like, 'Yeah that's cool but I would never get in a self-driving car. ... I don't trust some computer to drive me around.'"

While Trump is in no hurry to see automated vehicles, Chao is actively promoting the technology.

  • Last Tuesday at the SXSW conference, Chao announced a new regulatory body to speed up the adoption of cutting-edge transportation technologies like hyperloop tunnels and self-driving cars.
  • Then on Friday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it would seek the public's opinion on an unprecedented idea: Should decades-old motor vehicle statutes be changed to allow cars with no steering wheels, pedals or gear shifts?

The bottom line: Currently, there are no federal regulations on self-driving cars — just a hodgepodge of state rules.

  • Efforts to pass AV legislation stalled in the last Congress over concerns about privacy and safety. The issue will likely resurface this year, reports Axios' Joann Muller, who writes Axios' Autonomous Vehicles newsletter.
  • AV companies say the tech is moving too fast to regulate anyway. By sharing test data, they say they could help define standards and practices themselves.
  • For now, companies are encouraged to file voluntary safety self-assessments each year; so far, a dozen have done so.

Between the lines: A source who has discussed autonomous vehicles with Trump says he thinks it wouldn't take much for the president to rapidly reverse his administration's hands-off approach to hands-free vehicles. Trump already calls self-driving cars out-of-control death traps, so any news fueling that fear could jolt him into action.

Go deeper

Airlines call for Biden admin's "immediate intervention" in 5G deployment

Photo: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The CEOs of leading U.S. air cargo and passenger carriers on Monday warned the Biden administration there could be "catastrophic disruption" after AT&T and Verizon deploy a new 5G service this week.

Driving the news: They said in a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and other top federal officials ahead of the C-Band 5G service's deployment Wednesday that "the nation's commerce will grind to a halt" and "could potentially strand tens of thousands of Americans overseas."

Updated 3 hours ago - Energy & Environment

Thousands without power as "hazardous" winter storm lashes East Coast

Satellite imagery of the Northeastern U.S. taken by NOAA on Jan. 17. Photo: NOAA

A major winter storm lashed much of the East Coast Sunday and Monday, causing widespread power outages and disrupting travel over the holiday weekend.

The latest: Authorities in North Carolina confirmed that two people died in a car crash and that they responded 600 vehicle accidents during the storm on Sunday, per the Washington Post.

5 hours ago - Health

CDC director says COVID-19 messaging should have been clearer

Rochelle Walensky. Photo: Stefani Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images

Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that the messaging around the COVID-19 pandemic and changing guidance should have been clearer.

State of play: Walensky is being coached by media experts and is planning to have more press briefings by herself in order to ensure that CDC is seen as an independent, scientific entity, rather than as a political one, the Journal reports.

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