Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
The outgoing U.S. Secretary of Transportation reflects on autonomous vehicles, economic justice, and a remarkable tenure.
When Secretary Anthony Foxx took the reins at the U.S. Department of Transportation in June 2013, autonomous vehicles were just picking up pace. Google dominated software development with their rigged-Prius models. Traditional carmakers were unveiling futuristic prototypes left and right. A ride-sharing startup called Uber had just promised to pick up a 2,500-car AV fleet… from Google (my, how times have changed). Meanwhile, the feds had scarcely made a peep about whether driving these vehicles was legal.
Foxx brought DOT to the table. Working closely with industry innovators, his agency devised the world’s first national AV safety policy—a comprehensive guidance that earned praise for its flexibility as technology keeps up its breakneck speed. Foxx, formerly the mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, also looped cities into the conversation about 21st-century mobility: The $50 million Smart Cities Challenge fostered a national network of local leaders exchanging tactics to transport citizens through tech-ified, data-driven means. Through it all, Foxx’s administration has held a remarkably frank discussion on how the DOT cemented economic and racial disadvantage through historic infrastructure policies—and the agency has taken action to tear down those walls as the future presses on.
It’s anyone’s best guess how the incoming DOT Secretary, Elaine Chao, will steward these conversations or preside over technology’s leaps. Some progress may be undone. But Foxx has connected dots that are unlikely to be pulled apart: industry to government, city leaders to empowered citizens. At the end of a remarkable tenure, the Secretary reflects on the achievements and challenges that have defined his time in the President’s cabinet, as well as his own road ahead.
Thank you for taking the time to speak with me, Secretary Foxx. It’s an honor and a pleasure. How is the transition going at DOT?
We’re still cranking away. We’ve got still things we want to do, and working hard to make sure all those things happen.
I have to surprise you a little bit, don’t I? OK, to give you a hint, there is still active work happening on the drone rules, which will cover flight over people. We’ve laid out a plan to create some national test centers for automated vehicles. We’ve got an automation federal advisory committee to lay out and announce. So we have plenty to get done over the next several weeks.
What have communications with the President-elect’s transition team been like? Has DOT received any memos like the ones we’ve heard about at the Department of Energy?
No flare-ups over here, as far as I know. I have not met with transition team myself, but if there were any problems, I’d find out fast.
It’s been a phenomenal year for tech and transportation. In the last week alone, Uber’s autonomous vehicle testing took off (and got shut down) in San Francisco. Electric vehicle car-sharing is moving forward in L.A. Google’s Waymo unveiled designs for AV minivans. DOT proposed requiring new cars to have vehicle-to-vehicle communication. Again, that’s just in the past week. Across all of the technological advances we saw this year, what seems to be the defining narrative?
A lot of things we’ve accomplished this year in technology have been the product of years of work. Certainly the proposed V2V rule, which we announced our intent to do in 2014, has taken quite some time. So we were pleased to get that out. In general, I think you have to look back in time to when I came in. You have to remember that we were in the middle of sequestration, in the middle of a decade without a single surface transportation bill. Our National Highway Transportation Safety Administration was dealing with a spate of recalls that drew the attention of the entire country. A lot of this technology conversation hadn’t even bubbled up very much. Now, we’ve gone from playing defense to offense. Our imagination about transportation can be much more robust.
This year we did the Smart Cities Challenge, which I believe was the biggest pivot from a defensive mindset to an offensive mindset. We engaged 70 cities in discussion about how to build infrastructure for the future. All of those communities have now developed plans and many of them—even without winning the competition—have continued to make progress on those plans. So we have catalyzed a forward-thinking country. With other technologies, like drones and connected cars and AVs, we are now in a much stronger position to seize the opportunities of the future.
Our AV guidance was probably the most exhilarating piece of work we’ve done, because it’s so unlike what we typically do. I was personally involved in rolling my sleeves up to reflect the right balance between certainty and innovation. And so we worked really hard to get that guidance out and it’s been very well received. It’s a living document, so we expect it’ll be looked at and revised over time. But the basic framework will stand up. I’d add that this is the first type of document of its kind in the world, and it puts the U.S. at the forefront of this revolution and the evolution of the automobile.
And the V2V rule now begins to help provide a framework for new vehicles to connect to each other and provides the kind of certainty that manufacturers need to harmonize all their different vehicles so that we can have a connected transportation system. All of that, aside from being innovative and cool, is going to help us be safer as a country.
The automated vehicle industry still faces a lot of gray area as far as testing and safety regulations go. Uber’s recent run-in with the law in San Francisco drove that home. What needs to happen on the federal policy side, before real-world AV testing can run more widely and smoothly?
Real-world testing is happening today and I think it will continue. What we’ve tried to do through our AV guidance is provide a framework for the technology to keep evolving. Part of that evolution is having defined roles for the federal government and for state governments. There is now clarity for where the federal government tends to regulate, versus where it intends to engage, support, and collaborate with the industry. I’d cite privacy and cybersecurity as areas where there’s going to have to be industry-led efforts to satisfy consumers that this technology is not only convenient and useful, but also safe.
The best indication of how it’s been received is what you hear from the West Coast tech firms and the more established OEMs. People are grateful to have clarity.
But it’s not crystal-clear. It’s still a “guidance,” as you say—not law. What’s next? Do states need to step up to align their rules on AV testing and manufacturing with the DOT’s?
I think everybody has to step up. The problem was that no one knew where to step. Now there is a framework. As long as someone’s hands are on the steering wheel, states have a responsibility for making sure the operator can operate. But as the technology evolves, software tends to take that stuff out. We intend to regulate [how and when removing a steering wheel is appropriate]. That’s one example of what I think clarifying roles helps to do: it helps everyone get to where their space is. They can go from there.
We’ve been talking about the dance between regulation and industry, but, as in many conversations about AVs, perhaps the most important factor has been left out: consumers. How ready are American citizens to embrace automated travel?
I think that for most consumers, this is the equivalent of a UFO. People don’t know what to think about this technology and they haven’t had much opportunity to interface with it. Yet you saw last week Google put out a piece showing the promise of this technology to help folks with disabilities. Now you’re showing how people might have an entirely different relationship to their personal mobility. That’s a big deal. The more people learn about it, the more testing and research that happens, and the more our approach and the states and the industry evolves, I think we’ll get there.
Your administration has also heavily emphasized transportation equity, especially on correcting the economic and racial injustices created by 20th century transportation policy. Are you satisfied with your work on this front?
We’ve done everything we can. I don’t think there is a scrap of effort left that we haven’t tried to improve our own thinking on this, and those at state and local levels who build the infrastructure.
We might not always acknowledge it, but the reality is, when we build infrastructure we’re also building communities. It’s different than housing. It’s where boundaries are drawn, where highways and rail lines cut through, where transit stops are or the places that are skipped over. All of those decisions matter, because they all affect how we come into contact with each other. I’ve made a forceful case for rethinking our approach to that community-building function of transportation. And making sure people of all backgrounds, whether they’re in rural or urban or suburban America, have a real opportunity to have their voices heard and have input on these decisions.
We’ve used a variety of tools to demonstrate that a new way of thinking about infrastructure is possible. We’ve incorporated this thinking in everything from pilot projects to our transportation toolkit to the Smart Cities Challenge to the TIGER grant program. We’re going to keep doing it until the last day. But ultimately it’s an American conversation, and a project-by-project conversation. I do believe we’ve made a difference in giving people a real sense that their input matters.
You recently told reporters that more attention should be paid to how transportation dollars are spent, as opposed to how much. Why?
After having visited all 50 states, I can attest that this is a big country. There are many different parts of our country, some of which are largely, if not completely, road-dependent. Others are so constrained that you can’t put one more lane-mile in place. Transportation policy at the federal level needs to be able to speak to all of these contexts. But the challenge we have is that our money and funding sources are prescriptive. We have road money, transit money, very little rail money, and some money for airport improvements. It’s so structured that the demands of different communities across the country aren’t addressed adequately.
That’s why I’ve the made case—and will continue to make the case in my next life—that we need a more flexible funding approach. Rather than say that a certain percentage has to go to roads or transit or what have you, let the communities decide how that money should be spent, and grade them on criteria that shows how they’ve improved the system.
I think that funding being directed to states also needs to be revisited. The states need resources from the feds to continue their programs, but I’d also argue that regions and cities and towns could use more direct federal funds as well. This harkens back to my mayor days. Those areas can get things done relatively quickly, and many times they have a different sense of what they need than a state might. Rather than having regions, towns, and cities arguing over money, there should be a more dedicated program.
Given all we’ve talked about, perhaps your legacy could be summed up in one word: connectivity. Connecting vehicles, connecting transportation leaders, reconnecting divided communities.
I think there’s something to that. You know, I have a doctrine. My doctrine is basically that everybody matters. We have a divided country right now. You can select your own news. You can pick your own neighborhoods and stay in them. Now elected officials can pick their own constituencies. There are so many ways in which we’re disconnected from each other. That’s one of the challenges of the 21st century: We create pockets of invisibility, and we get surprised when we don’t know what’s going on there.
I think our transportation system for many years has encouraged some of that, and there is something we can do about it. Transportation can bring us together. When I ride on the New York City subway system, I’m riding with millionaires and with homeless people. No one is hidden from the other. That interaction doesn’t mean people live in the same neighborhoods, or that they go to the same school. But what it does mean is that no one is invisible. If we want to heal those divisions, we’ve got to think differently about how we practice transportation. It’s not a Democratic or Republican concept. That’s an American concept: No matter who you are or where you live, the transportation system helps you get where you want to go.
Any thoughts about where your own journey might lead after January 20?
No! I am running hard here until the very end. At 12:01 a.m. on January 20th, I’ll think about my next move. It’s been a pleasure to serve President Obama and the United States of America. It’s been the greatest experience of my life. My wish is that this department and our government continues to build a brighter future for Americans.