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South by Southwest Conference

Remarks Prepared for Delivery by
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao
South by Southwest Conference
Austin, TX
Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Thank you, FinchFinch is the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy and leading a team of DOT specialists who are here at SXSW to conduct several information-sharing sessions.  At 11:00 this morning, DOT will host “The New Urban Mobility Partnership.”  Following that will be “By Land, Air, and Sea:  The Future of Freight” and then panels on transportation accessibility, cybersecurity and innovations in rural mobility. 

The panelists include experts from industry, academia and local government.  DOT is also hosting a demonstration room on key projects, including the Department’s Safety Data Initiative, Integrated Mobility Innovation and much more.  So please take advantage of these opportunities and participate! 

The pace of change going on in technology, transportation and in our society, is stunning!  America has always been defined by innovation and change.  Soon after our nation’s founding, a century-long territorial and economic expansion was enabled by transformative technologies – notably railroads and the steam engine.  Those technological revolutions -- and later the combustion engine, aviation, motor vehicles and space – shaped our nation.  Transportation innovation throughout our history propelled economic growth, increased mobility, built communities and raised the quality of life for everyone.

Innovation is still driving growth, and still gives us hope for a better future.  At the U.S. Department of Transportation that future is defined as one in which travel is, first of all: safer.  And in which mobility options expand for the benefit of everyone -- especially currently underserved communities.  That said, the Department is tech-neutral. 

But it needs to be innovation-friendly. 

The Department is a half-century old collection of transportation modes – some are 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 slow down -- even stifle -- transportation innovation. 

New cross-modal technologies -- such as hyperloop, advanced boring machines, aviation systems and autonomous vehicles -- have the potential to transform transportation.  Formerly abstract ideas, evocative of science fiction, have now matured into physical prototypes and project proposals.  Inventors, investors and stakeholders are ready to build out these technologies.  Yet too often when they come to USDOT to obtain the necessary safety authorizations, permits, and, in some cases, funding, they don’t know which part of the Department they need to deal with.  In some cases, neither does the Department! 

Hyperloop is an example of this frustrating and unproductive phenomenon.  This technology uses a pressurized vacuum tube and magnetic levitation to transport people and goods at ultra-fast speeds through a low friction environment.  The Department has been approached by multiple entities – including state and local governments and several companies – who are interested in developing this technology.  But one look at DOT’s structure, and it is not at all clear which mode governs hyperloop. 

In fact, more than one mode arguably has jurisdiction.  Hyperloop is on a fixed guideway – which is the Federal Railroad Administration’s bailiwick.  But air pressurization is a major aspect of this technology, which is expertise of the FAA.  Put a road in the tunnel and FHWA is involved.  Motor vehicles implicate NHTSA.  If the project involves commercial trucks or bus lines, that brings in FMCSA.  If it’s operated by a transit authority, the Federal Transit Administration may be involved.  How does the Department coordinate to ensure the right experts are involved at the right stages in the regulatory process?  How can innovators have any confidence that the right mode will be involved at the right time?

Tunneling is another example. Seems simple.  Tunnels in and of themselves certainly are not a new concept.  But innovation has transformed tunneling for transportation, making it possible on a scale and with a speed and precision previously inconceivable.  You have probably heard about some tunneling projects that would dig underneath urban areas and run vehicles or “pods” to key destinations, such as airports.  These projects are already underway in a few places.

So the question is, who at DOT is in charge of overseeing tunnel safety?  Well, first you need to know whether this is a highway tunnel, a rail tunnel, or a transit tunnel. The answer affects, for starters, which standards are required for ventilation and emergency egress.  And which of DOT’s operating administrations should conduct the environmental review?  DOT authorities differ depending on the answers to these questions. 

Similar questions pertain to urban air mobility, or air taxis.  And autonomous technology used in cars and trucks, and for unmanned aerial vehicles – aka drones -- that increasingly have intermodal applications. 

It used to be that a train was a train, a highway was simply a highway, etcetera, and fit neatly into DOT’s legal strictures. Today, there are new cross-modal transportation applications that require a new approach at the Department.

These questions aren’t theoretical.  Maybe 10 years ago, even 5 years ago, they were.  But no longer.  People are asking the Department for answers.  And the Department needs a process to figure it out.  Ad hoc is not going to cut it and will impede progress.  Ad hoc breeds internal confusion, forum shopping, and other complications that cause delay, or worse. 

And so I am pleased today to announce a new way forward.  I have signed an order creating a new cross-modal body of senior DOT leaders who will be charged with swiftly addressing and resolving these complicated questions.  This innovation leadership team will be officially known as the Non-traditional and Emerging Transportation Technology (NETT) Council.  And its first meeting will be conducted later this week.

As cross-modal technology develops and stakeholders look to start building projects, DOT’s NETT Council will find ways to ensure that the traditional modal silos at DOT do not impede the deployment of new technology.  In addition to answering some of the threshold questions, the new council is empowered to establish individual working groups for each new cross-modal project. 

The Council will address and resolve internal matters of jurisdiction and policy.   Externally, it will ensure that project sponsors have a single point of access to discuss plans and proposals.  Going forward, there will now be one place -- a one-stop shop -- for innovators and stakeholders to work with USDOT to implement new cross-modal technologies, just as traditional technologies can do. 

The Department will remain tech-neutral.  But it will be a lot more innovation-friendly.  That will help safer, better transportation options become available more quickly.  And that is what the Department should be all about.

So we welcome the visionaries, the doers, the stakeholders with solutions to today’s transportation problems.  And also those who can help us to see, and strive toward, the possibilities of tomorrow.    

Thank you.    

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Updated: Wednesday, March 13, 2019
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