U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao on Innovating & Automated Vehicles

July 1, 2020American Road & Transportation Builders Association’s Transportation Builder Magazine

U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao answered these questions from ARTBA.

Q: The surface transportation system continues to undergo transformation, in terms of both the technology on our roads and the way the traveling public uses the roadways. How has USDOT prioritized innovation to ensure we are prepared for the future needs of our transportation system while providing for the traveling public’s safety?

Chao: There is so much innovation going on in the transportation field today. Our mantra has always been: The Department needs to engage with emerging new technologies to address legitimate public concerns about safety, security, and innovation without hampering innovation.

The Department is technology neutral—not top-down, command and control. That means the Government is not in the business of picking technology winners and losers. Our goal is to enable the safe testing and deployment of a wide variety of new technologies, so communities and individuals can choose what fits their needs best. This employs a flexible, performance-based approach that protects safety while giving entrepreneurs the room they need to innovate and grow.

One example of how we are advancing innovation and improving safety and infrastructure is through our new pilot program designed to help avoid traffic accidents and save the lives of first responders by utilizing the 5.9 GHz Safety Band. Recently, the Department has announced its intention to invest up to $38 million in the First Responder Safety Technology Pilot Program, which will help equip emergency response vehicles and key infrastructure with vehicle-to-everything (V2X) communication technology.

Many of the new technologies are cross-modal, so in March 2019 the Department established the Non-Traditional and Emerging Transportation Technology (NETT) Council, which is a one-stop shop to make it easier for innovators and stakeholders to work with the Department. In July, the NETT Council released its Pathways to the Future of Transportation guidance document that lays out a process for innovators and stakeholders to approach the Department with their plans and proposals for emerging technologies.

The Department is also engaged in ground-breaking rulemakings that will create a path forward for some of the most advanced emerging transportation technologies.


Q: How is the Department preparing for the future of Automated Vehicle (AV) technology?

Chao: On Jan. 8, I announced the release of Ensuring American Leadership in Automated Vehicle Technologies: Automated Vehicles 4.0. This document unifies AV efforts across 38 Federal departments, independent agencies, commissions, and Executive Offices of the President. It signifies that the Federal Government is all in for safer, better, and more inclusive transportation, aided by automated driving systems. It recognizes the value of private sector leadership in AV research, development, and integration.

Bringing to fruition the vast potential of AVs will require collaboration and information-sharing among industry partners, State and local governments, academia, non-profits, standards development organizations, and the Federal Government.

An example of such an effort by the Department can be seen through FHWA’s CARMA program. CARMA program is a multi-modal research initiative focused on improving the transportation system by leveraging emerging automated driving technology and vehicle-to-everything (V2X) technology to enhance safety, efficiency, and operational performance in moving people and goods.

Automated vehicles have the potential to save thousands of lives annually and restore mobility to millions of people who face transportation challenges, such as older Americans and people with disabilities.

And I’d like to mention that FHWA is pursuing an update of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, the first major update in a decade. The updated version will reflect advances in technologies that are not currently represented in the Manual today.

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