U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx joined Google’s Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt at the company headquarters on February 2, 2015 to announce the Department of Transportation’s proposal to improve the nation’s roads, rails, ports, and air traffic control towers. The selection of Google for the unveiling was a direct signal that the US government wants to clear the way for technological innovation when it comes to transportation. As was his arrival with Schmidt in a driverless car prototype for the hour-long question and answer unveiling the long-range transportation plan.
Foxx took questions from the Google audience that covered a broad set of issues including infrastructure challenges, multi-mode freight transportation issues, public vs. private roadways, mass transit, and the inclusion of pedestrians and bicyclists. While the overall top-down viewpoint addressed these issues through a safety issues lens, they were disseminated through a prism of technological innovation.
The Department of Transportation has been working for more than a year on the current blueprint as part of its long-term preparation for a future where a projected 70 million more people will live in the U.S. by 2045. This increase in the population will be mostly concentrated in metropolitan hubs in the West and the South.
Since his 2013 appointment to transportation chief by the Obama administration, the former mayor of Charlotte, N.C. has primarily been dealing with short-term policy challenges. The most pressing among them has been the highway fund that expires in May, which has already been temporarily extended by Congress 32 times in the last six (6) years. According to Foxx, this has been one of the primary causes of the slowdown in the planning process for implementation of infrastructure projects that take years to complete.
A key point that he made repeatedly was that the challenge for federal departmental involvement is that most decisions for transportation infrastructure are made at the state level rather than the federal level. One of the main ways in which the federal government responds to this is by working to provide more actionable data to states on what is working and what is not. This actionable data is gathered from areas in the country that have implemented ideas that have proven to be successful in addressing specific issues.
On the issues regarding the movement of freight, Foxx discussed the need to make all modes of freight transportation work together more seamlessly. The impacts of e-commerce and freight movement and its impact on infrastructure were also part of the discussion. This dovetailed into a discussing about transportation technology such as the electric car, the role of government in funding transportation infrastructure projects, and the differences between funding and financing in these projects. Foxx cited areas where the public and private sector can get collaborate such as at port locations and high-speed rail terminals.
Transportation safety and technological innovation were clearly the lead issues that engendered numerous interactive questions from among the audience. Questions included concerns about current highway overcrowding, increased accidents, and vehicle defects. These issues were often addressed through the evolution of automated vehicles.
The hour-long question and answer period was insufficient time to delve deeply into the many issues surrounding automated vehicles, necessary infrastructure changes, and the overall urban planning necessary for their viable rollout. The audience members were interested in the government’s answers regarding the government’s role in mandates that provide public safety protections without inhibiting innovation. While Secretary Foxx cited the reduction in transportation research dollars, he acknowledged that the work being done regarding automated vehicles was a clear bright spot in that effort.
In addition, the Transportation Secretary acknowledged that to address current and future highway safety issues surrounding vehicle defects and research, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will require a significant staff hike. President Barack Obama proposed tripling the department’s budget for its Office of Defects Investigation to $31 million from $10.7 million. According to Foxx, this increase would significantly help the Transportation Department identify defect trends as automotive technology becomes more complex.
In the too-brief exchange, there were questions regarding policy and urban sprawl from the standpoint of climate change. Lastly, the group discussed the changing demographic spread and the transportation needs of getting disparate populations to work centers. Google CEO Eric Schmidt utilized Google buses as an example of one type of remedy where private investment can help bridge the gap.
Secretary Foxx then added the trend for millennials moving back to cities and their need for alternative transportation solutions. This brought up the current rideshare scenarios, as well as the need to address safety issues for the growing number of people who are walking and bicycling.
While Foxx acknowledged that individual remedies to the challenges of transportation and infrastructure could not individually change the outlook for the better, when taken together they formed a framework of options within which safety and transportation challenges might be addressed as demographics and transport needs change.