Secretary Buttigieg gives remarks at the Consumer Electronics Show on the future of transportation innovation
Secretary Buttigieg gives remarks at the
Consumer Electronics Show on the future of transportation innovation
Las Vegas, Nevada
January 6, 2021
Hello, I’m Secretary Pete Buttigieg, and it’s an honor to address this year’s CES. I wish that I could be joining you in person, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to address so many inspiring innovators.
Transportation and technology have always gone together—certainly at least since the time when some unnamed, ancient innovator created humanity’s first, most famous early invention, a transportation-related innovation: the wheel. Ever since then, so much of our imagination and achievements in technology have had something to do with transportation.
From e-scooters to spacecraft to GPS to subways, technology shapes most human journeys, whether it’s a historic spaceflight or a daily commute.
At the Department of Transportation, my colleagues and I think every day about how transportation technologies are evolving, and we use our policy tools to support these innovations, and make sure that they deliver convenience, safety, and economic opportunity for the American people.
History often celebrates the individual visionaries behind so many of our greatest achievements—and rightly so. But often, history forgets that good government and wise policy has played a very important role in supporting the development of many, if not most, of our greatest technologies.
So today, I want to speak to you about the role of the public sector in steering innovation toward the public good: where I believe government needs to lean in, and where government should seek to get out of the way.
As CES makes clear, the pace of innovation is accelerating. This year’s conference features everything from self-driving racecars, to handheld brain injury scanners, to AI-powered space travel.
Some of the most exciting new frontiers are happening in my field: transportation. We very much live in a time when innovation is shaping and reshaping how people and goods move to where they need to be. But also, in recent years, “innovation” has become such a buzzword that it is at risk of losing all of its meaning. And for policymakers, that carries the risk of losing our focus as we contend with the constantly shifting and rapidly developing world of transportation technology.
As policymakers, we have to prioritize. We need to assess which important innovations will develop on their own, and which require federal support for basic research. We must consider when a technology should be given as much room as possible to develop on an experimental basis, and when it’s reached the point that it raises concerns that require regulation to keep the American people safe.
The current decade is especially full of challenges and opportunities from developments in transportation technology. We are witnessing the rise of electric and autonomous vehicles, the widespread adoption of recreational and commercial drones, renewed attention to cybersecurity vulnerabilities in our infrastructure, increasingly routine commercial space travel, and perhaps most urgently, the high-stakes race to dramatically reduce transportation’s impact on our climate before it’s too late.
And all of this is happening at a time when the tech sector is wrestling with its own challenges—coming to terms with its broader social impacts, dealing with issues from how to ensure that your industries reflect the full diversity of the American people, to how we make sure new technological developments serve to empower and not undermine the economic well-being of workers.
Of course, innovation doesn’t just come from Silicon Valley, and it doesn’t always involve a shiny new piece of technology. In fact, a lot of innovation is happening in the civic space, coming from our cities and states.
In the wake of the pandemic, transit agencies introduced new measures to keep their workers and riders safe, from PPE vending machines, to ultraviolet light disinfecting bus fleets, to mobile ticket validations that show passengers how full their ride is before they board. Some of the most important innovations were deceptively low-tech, as cities began reimagining how to use public spaces, with new ways to facilitate outdoor dining and active transportation like walking and biking.
Local traffic safety advocates have developed creative new ways to reduce car crashes, which range from seemingly simple ideas like longer-lasting lane markings so it’s easier for drivers to stay in their lane, to complex solutions like using city-wide video analytics to identify dangerous traffic patterns in real time.
As a former mayor, I'm especially interested in innovations that work best when no one even notices they're there, like pavements that last longer or are even self-healing, so that you don't ever experience a rough road or a pothole and the damage to your car that goes with it. Those kinds of developments may not sound sexy compared to something like commercial space travel, but pavement innovation may do more for more Americans in our lifetimes than most exciting transportation innovations that are out there.
The advancements that have shaped transportation—in both historic and everyday fashion—they don’t happen in a vacuum; they result from discoveries made in a context of public and societal readiness for innovation and investment.
We’ve got to be intentional about how all of this fits together, and about the specific role of the public sector. That’s why today, for the first time in our history, the Department of Transportation is establishing a set of six guiding principles for our work on innovation in transportation.
- The first principle is that innovation is not an end in itself; it’s a chance to improve everyday life. So our Department’s innovation efforts should always be serving key public policy priorities, like creating economic opportunity, advancing equitable access to transportation, and of course, helping to confront the climate crisis.
- Second, innovation should be shaped in ways that help America win the 21st century—prioritized with a view to the competitive nature of the world we’re in—with transportation systems and infrastructure that make communities more adaptable and resilient in the face of that global competition.
- Third, we need innovation strategies that support workers, knowing that our choices help to define and decide whether any given technological development meets its potential to create economic benefits for everyone.
- Fourth, a good innovation strategy is one that allows for experimentation and learns from setbacks, because these are such an important part of the discovery process. I know something like that seems obvious in the tech world, but in the world of government, this requires a lot of work and adaptability amid a culture that—often for good reason—is deeply risk-averse.
- Fifth, our approaches to innovation should center on opportunities to collaborate, recognizing that the public sector, the private sector, and the academic sector all have distinct but related roles.
- And sixth, finally, our policies should be flexible and ready to adapt as technology changes. And again, this might seem obvious in the tech world, but it’s something that is going to require a great deal of imagination as we set up our policy and legal frameworks for the years to come.
Together, these principles will ensure that the enormous potential of U.S. transportation innovation serves to benefit our nation and its people. And we’re looking forward to discussing this more with scholars, organized labor, safety advocates, private sector technologists, and other stakeholders in the weeks and months ahead.
Soon, our team will launch a new means for better engaging with our non-federal partners to identify challenges and develop solutions—and we'll be reaching out soon with more details.
I know that for some, “government” and “innovation” are not words that naturally go together. But the reality is the public sector has always played a vital part in unlocking the innovative capacity of the American people.
Government historically has had several important roles. One—perhaps among the most important—is that we often fund what economists would call general purpose technologies: inventions that have the potential to drive enormous growth, but that might not turn a near-term profit.
When the process works well, publicly supported discoveries coming from basic research can then be used to reach full-scale and practical uses in private hands.
Consider the smartphone, an invention that’s transformed the way we live in a matter of just a few years. Smartphones could only be the result of private sector inventions and marketing—often the natural role of private companies, not government agencies. But the technologies on which smartphones depend—microprocessors, lithium batteries, touchscreens, GPS, and most significantly, the Internet itself—all were supported or literally invented by government researchers.
Or, to take an example more specific to transportation, bear in mind that public investments in automated vehicles date back decades, helping to lay crucial groundwork for the dazzling progress and innovations that are being showcased by private-sector actors today, including at CES.
Some of our most famous and important tech companies—including Google, Apple, and Tesla—benefited from government subsidies, loan guarantees, and/or other forms of public support early in their growth.
Government invests in pursuit of a different kind of return than what the private sector seeks—not a direct financial return on investment, but benefits to the American people. And when we get it right, it complements what business does best, which is developing great ideas and efficiently, profitably bringing them to market.
Meanwhile, public investments also play a role creating the operating environment—or, to use another term, the infrastructure—for private inventions and operations to reach their full potential. Government didn’t invent the plane, or the train, or the automobile, but government did build airports, lay tracks, and construct highways.
And most importantly, good government made sure each of these innovations was safe for the people who count on them every day.
In the late 19th century, as railroads were proliferating across the country, hundreds of passengers and thousands of rail workers lost their lives every year. So Congress passed a series of laws requiring modern safety measures like air brakes and automatic couplers for every train, which led to a sharp drop in deaths and injuries.
When the first commercial airplanes took to the skies, hundreds of them crashed or went missing every year. So America created the FAA—the Federal Aviation Administration—and a national air traffic control system. And today, flying is the safest way to travel.
When automobiles were first invented, traffic fatalities skyrocketed, as new cars tore down streets once used only by pedestrians and horses. But when we passed laws requiring seatbelts, airbags, and sober driving, fatalities came down—although we still have a long way to go.
Now, importantly, these safety improvements didn't just benefit the public; they ultimately helped industry as well, creating more certainty and confidence that someone could count on a very high level of safety when they weighed whether to take a job on the railroad, or purchase a plane ticket, or buy a car.
The lessons we learned from each of these transportation revolutions still apply today. We shouldn’t have to wait until a new piece of technology is dangerous to the public to act; we should plan proactively, to support the growth of new ideas, and to make sure that Americans share in the benefits.
Again, consider autonomous vehicles. For all their potential, they’ve also raised complicated—even philosophical—questions about safety, equity, and our workforce. It’s why, last year, we at DOT announced a standing general order that requires crash reports and information from testers, operators, and manufacturers of those vehicles, so that we can identify safety concerns and collaborate to address them early.
We’re also taking steps to establish new testing standards and create a national incident database for crashes involving AVs. And we’re working closely with our partners—especially organized labor—to evaluate and address the potential consequences of automation for our workforce and from the perspective of equity.
All of this is taking place as we look ahead to a future of transportation that will be as dynamic as anything America has experienced. From the intercontinental railroad, to the Wright brothers, to Apollo 11, transportation has always been a frontier for American innovation. The frontiers ahead of us, and our generations, will reach even more intimately into our daily lives.
Today's small-scale projects that use drones to inspect bridges, care for crops, or deliver medicine to homebound seniors have the potential to expand across the nation, into uses that are part of the fabric of everyday life.
In our lifetimes, we could see truly smart cities—built on the connected technology showcased at CES—where cars, buses, and infrastructure all communicate with each other to plot safer routes and use less energy.
We could even see regular suborbital spaceflight that transforms international travel and brings the world even closer together.
Some of these advancements will come slowly; others are already on their way. The nature of innovation means that anyone who tries to guess which transformations will happen in which order and by what date will probably be proven wrong.
But we are learning every day from the developments that are happening around us right now. As Secretary of Transportation, I’ve had the privilege of seeing a lot of these developments firsthand.
In Georgia last year, I saw the nation’s first-ever solar roadway, which provides clean power for nearby electric vehicle chargers.
In Oregon, I test-drove one of the electric buses that cities around the country are embracing as cleaner and quieter alternatives to outdated diesel vehicles.
In North Carolina, I visited an advanced research lab working on that vital if unsexy subject that I mentioned earlier: the future of pavement, including the potential for more durable asphalt and even materials that can recycle carbon dioxide.
American companies and scientists are at work every day pushing the boundaries of what is possible in transportation. And our Department is at work every day preparing for these developments, supporting them directly or indirectly, and maintaining the guardrails to help those technologies unfold in ways that are safe, equitable, and clean.
In the years ahead, our core principles will guide that work—and thanks to President Biden’s historic Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, we now have new resources to support those efforts.
The investments in that law—the agenda to build a better America—will help more Americans purchase affordable EVs and save money on gas. They’ll help more children take the bus to school without being exposed to toxic fumes. And they will put more people to work creating the infrastructure of the future.
The infrastructure law also creates a fund for major projects that are too large or complex for traditional funding systems. It's a huge opportunity, and a big challenge, because alongside that funding, it will be vitally important for us to improve our country's track record when it come sto delivering big infrastructure projects on time, on task, and on budget. Innovation isn't just about technologies themselves—it's about how we deliver transportation resources cost-effectively and quickly. And that calls for us to reinvent the machinery of government itself, just as much as any piece of transportation equipment.
There's more in this bill: it provides half a billion dollars in funding to the SMART Program, to kickstart a new generation of smart city innovation.
It invests in University Transportation Centers that work on climate, equity, and innovation—including at HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions.
It even includes a vision to set up a future Advanced Research Projects Agency for Infrastructure, ARPA-I—modeled after DARPA and ARPA-E for energy. This is a chance to scale up our R&D efforts to keep pace with innovation and help to drive it.
And of course, we will be evaluating every project that we fund with consideration to these six new principles—not acquiring or deploying technology for its own sake, but using innovation as a powerful tool to advance our goals and reflect our American values.
Before ending my remarks, I want to make the modest suggestion that the future of democratic civilization will depend partly on our ability to deliver tangible improvements in very basic experiences, like the delivery of goods and the availability of safe and efficient transportation.
Today marks one year since we all watched as a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol shook the very foundations of our democratic system.
The events of that day were planned by domestic extremists and stoked by poisonous misinformation. But they were also fueled, in part, by a public perception that extends far beyond the rioters: a belief that our institutions, and the people who lead them, cannot be trusted, because they do not deliver.
Across the board, public trust in our institutions—government, corporations, media, even philanthropy—has been careening toward an all-time low in recent years. Volumes of commentary could be, and have been, written about the various reasons contributing to that problem. I’m convinced that one of the most important solutions is to make sure that the actual outcomes of public policy are better, and better understood. And that they’re better not just for a select few, but for all Americans.
Whether it has to do with getting to work on time, or preventing climate disaster, the quality of everyday life for countless people depends partly on how well the people who work on transportation in the 2020s can deliver. And that, in turn, will require us to innovate—not just in the technologies we create, but in the equipment of government, academia, and industry, and how they relate to each other.
The durability of the American project—and the extent to which America is admired around the world—have always depended not just on the elegance of our Constitutional and market principles, but on the ways in which everyday life is tangibly better under a system where people choose their government, and where the marketplace is allowed and encouraged to function.
No one knows exactly what's next: which of the innovations now being developed will reshape our lives, how quickly, or how slowly. Less than sixty years passed between the first flight at Kitty Hawk and the first crewed American spaceflight. Less than ten years after the first smartphones hit the market, ride-sharing was overtaking taxi use in American cities. Meanwhile, electric vehicles were in commercial production in 1902 at Studebaker factories in my hometown of South Bend, Indiana—only to all but vanish for the next hundred years, and then begin to re-emerge as a potentially dominant force in the 21st century.
It’s not the job of policymakers to guess or to dictate how and when these advancements unfold. But our role in supporting, fostering, and safeguarding the work of transportation innovation is vital, and it comes at an exceptionally important time in the story of American transportation. The decade ahead will bring countless transformative changes in how people and goods move around the country and around the world. And the Department of Transportation will be there, working with innovators like those at CES, to help support these patterns of innovations and make sure these developments benefit the American people.
Thank you for what you do, and thank you for the opportunity to address you today.