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 Incorporating Drones and Self-Driving Vehicles into Communities

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Remarks Prepared for Delivery by
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao
CES Panel on
 “Incorporating Drones and Self-Driving Vehicles into Communities”
Las Vegas, Nevada
January 10, 2018 

Thank you, Jamie [Boone], for that introduction. Good afternoon, everyone. I’m so pleased to be here today.

It would be hard to walk away from CES 2018 — the “Global Stage for Innovation” — without optimism and excitement for the future!   And a lot of admiration for the human ingenuity that is bringing so many incredible products to market today.

Transformative technologies are poised to revolutionize transportation.  Mass integration of self-driving cars, trucks and drones would be an exponential leap in the way we travel and the way we transport goods.  But to make that scenario our reality, we will also need to revolutionize transportation policy.

Both the public and the private sector have an obligation to lead in this arena.

Autonomous transportation technologies will have a tremendous impact on society in terms of safety, security, access and jobs.  They could significantly, even dramatically, enhance traffic safety.  Their capacity to make possible far greater mobility for our elderly and people with disabilities could provide millions with a better quality of life.  But there are obstacles to implementation.  These technologies are not without risk and they are not without cost.

Today, 94% of traffic accidents involve driver error.  That’s despite survey findings that nearly everyone thinks that they themselves are excellent drivers!

In a world in which 100% of the vehicles on the road were automated, driver error would cease to be the greatest risk on the roads.  Instead, that human risk factor shifts to the computer programmers who establish in software the protocols by which the vehicles will operate. 

Which reminds me that I need to check my phone to see if any software updates are pending…

People have learned — via their phones and computers — that computer programmers can be brilliant but they are also human.  We’ve also learned that computers are vulnerable to hackers. 

So, people naturally wonder how programming imperfections and hacker attacks will play out in traffic.  Especially concerning is the transition, during which self-driving vehicles will share roads with old-fashioned cars and trucks driven by humans, some of whom are not actually excellent drivers.

Autonomous vehicles certainly have many advantages.  For starters, they have 360-degree and night vision and precise depth perception.  But the human mind is also powerful and provides context to situations that is not easily replicated by computers.   

Our fellow citizens will need to have confidence that all of their concerns have been adequately addressed by policymakers and manufacturers in order for this technology to be successfully deployed and its potential realized.

Many people have an additional concern about this “disruptive” technology, and that is the impact it will have on jobs.  As a former Secretary of Labor, this concerns me very much.  In the long run, new technologies create jobs.  But the transition period can be very difficult for dislocated workers so this is something that also needs to be addressed.  We need to help these workers adapt to this new world. 

At the U.S. Department of Transportation, safety will always be our number one priority.  That’s why a key part of DOT’s mission is to cultivate and encourage safety innovation by eliminating unnecessary obstacles to the development and integration of new technology. Our approach will be tech neutral and flexible — not top-down, command and control.

Let me share with you a few specific things the Department is doing to encourage innovation. 

As you know, drone technology is revolutionizing the aviation industry. Just this week, we will hit a major milestone when we surpass 1 million drones registered for use in the U.S. There are now about 50,000 registered drone operators – a new job category that did not exist until recently. 

This rapid growth is why last October 25, 2017, the Department announced a new drone pilot program to allow interested communities  to safely experiment with new drone technologies. This includes package delivery, emergency inspections, flying drones over people, beyond the line of sight and more. The data, best practices and insights gained from the program will be used to enable the next generation of drone operations.

Participation in this pilot program is strictly voluntary and the interest we have received has been outstanding! More than 150 completed applications have been received and they involve over 40 states, 75 local government entities, several tribal entities, more than 15 colleges and universities and 6 airport authorities. That’s why, today, I am announcing that in the first round we will have at least ten lead participants. It’s so important to keep drone innovation in the U.S., so our country remains a leader in this transformative technology.

This past fall, the Department released new guidance for safe testing and integration of autonomous vehicles, AV 2.0: A Vision for Safety.  This technology is advancing so rapidly that we expect to release AV 3.0 this summer. The update will be intermodal. It will address barriers to the safe integration of autonomous technology for motor carriers, trucks, infrastructure and port operations. We plan to update the guidance as often as needed. Let me also note that the voluntary safety assessment letters outlined in the 2.0 guidance will be preserved.  So I encourage industry stakeholders who choose to participate to publish these letters.

I also want to take this opportunity to announce that the Department will be seeking public input from across the transportation industry to identify existing barriers to innovation. This includes not only barriers that impact vehicles but also impediments to innovations that can impact our highways, railroads, trains and motor carriers. We don’t know the future, so we are looking for insight that can help us better understand how these technologies will evolve.

Right now, there are many outdated transportation rules, terms and concepts that no longer apply to an automated world. This request for input will help us identify which regulations, parts of regulations or terminology need to be updated to allow for innovation to move forward. The Department issued multiple official Requests for Comment and Information as of 8:45 am PST this morning, and they will be posted on the DOT website and in the Federal Register.

Creativity and innovation are part of the great genius of America. We must safeguard this legacy and allow the human spirit of innovation to triumph. Your companies are part of America’s innovation economy, which is a key driver in creating not only new technology, but jobs, hope and prosperity for others.  Let us work together to ensure that our country remains a global technology leader, and that no one is left behind as this historic era of new mobility unfolds.

Thank you.