Chao: Paving The Way for Innovation in Transportation

March 12, 2019Austin American-Statesman | By Elaine Chao

As thousands gather in Austin this week for South By Southwest (SXSW), the city will play host to some of the world’s leading innovators and thought leaders. Since SXSW’s inception 33 years ago, there has been an ongoing technological revolution that has impacted all aspects of our society, including transportation. Today, technologies on the horizon hold promise to be transformative for transportation, and boost safety, mobility and economic growth.

Transportation innovators are developing safer, faster and smarter solutions to move people and products. Autonomous vehicles, for example, have potential to significantly improve traffic safety and increase mobility. Unmanned aerial vehicles – a.k.a. “drones” – are proving immensely valuable in public and private sector applications and have tremendous potential to do much more. All the modes of transportation – including roads, rail, maritime and aviation — are benefitting from technological advances. This rapid pace of change shows no signs of slowing down. Unfortunately, the regulatory mechanisms for supporting them are struggling to keep up.

The traditional approach to transportation has been one of silos. The U.S. Department of Transportation is a half-century old collection of separate agencies – some encompass distinct technologies, and others are just legal distinctions. In 1966, 31 federal entities were melded into five operating elements. Today the Department consists of 11 operating administrations, each with its own jurisdiction and bureaucracy. One administration is focused on railroads, another on cars, another on trucks, and so on. We have a 20th century organizational structure for 21st century technologies.

When new technologies don’t fit neatly into the existing modal structure, the result can impede transportation innovation. New technologies and applications like hyperloop and aerial mobility are reshaping how the Department of Transportation thinks about these modal distinctions. Which agency is responsible for a pressurized tube (i.e. hyperloop) carrying pods of people and goods at ultra-fast speeds? What about a privately-funded tunnel moving people in autonomous electric vehicles? Or a “flying car” that travels through the air and on surface infrastructure?

These are not theoretical questions. Ideas and blueprints that a few years ago seemed fanciful have now matured into physical prototypes and project proposals. Innovators and other stakeholders across the transportation ecosystem are ready to implement these technologies around the country.

At the U.S. Department of Transportation we’re tackling the problem of innovation-stifling bureaucracies and taking steps to help support new “cross-model” technologies. Part of this effort is the creation, which we’re announcing today, of the department’s Non-Traditional and Emerging Transportation Technology Council. The council is tasked with identifying and resolving bureaucratic impediments to emerging technologies.

Old government ways of doing things too often have stymied innovations that could improve transportation safety, mobility and accessibility. The department is coming to grips with this and moving ahead to provide a clear path for new technologies to be vetted in accordance with safety, environmental and other applicable standards.

This week at SXSW, some of America’s premier and emerging thinkers, doers, inventors, and entrepreneurs are gathering and sharing ideas and plans for the near and distant future. Where their initiatives intersect with transportation, the department is committed to working with our local, state and private sector partners to engage with these technologies, to improve safety, mobility and accessibility.
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