When President Obama appointed Anthony Foxx as his Secretary of Transportation in 2013, no one expected self-driving cars and drones to become big topics in mainstream America. Secretary Foxx has shepherded the country through some of the biggest technical changes in transportation in decades. When The Verge last spoke to Foxx to discuss his vision for the next five years, Donald Trump had not been elected as the next president. How a Trump administration and his nominee for transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, will treat technology is still unclear. The Verge spoke to Foxx during his last week on the job. He addressed transportation as a civil rights issue, the need for more public transportation investment, and groundwork the Obama administration has left for self-driving car deployment. Foxx reflected on the mindset of a country primed for new ways of thinking about getting around — and the hope that the work of his office will be embraced by the next administration.
So much has shifted since we last spoke. What are you optimistic about and what do you see as areas that present the biggest challenges?
The biggest adjustment is a retrospective, nostalgic view of American transportation where we look back and say “Didn't we used to have better roads?” and “Didn’t we used to not have potholes and didn’t we have a better way to pay for it?” Today I can honestly say we’ve pivoted toward the future and what kind of system a 21st century America needs. That’s evident through the work we’ve done with the Smart City Challenge and the work we’ve done on autonomous vehicles and drones. There’s an imagination about transportation again and it will take us to places beyond what we can expect today. As long as the American active imagination is at work, the future’s going to be bright for us. I’m very encouraged by that.
On the challenge side, it’s fair to say that we continue to face the same dogged questions about how we pay for infrastructure. Do we have the right policies in place to capture the opportunities the future has as we have more of an innovative national dialogue about transportation? How do we connect every single person in this country — whether they live in an urban, rural, or suburban area — to the economy? Those kinds of questions still need to be answered. But what we’ve tried to do is put the architecture in place in a way that moves the country forward.
The new administration has talked about making a significant trillion-dollar investment infrastructure. What do you think about that?
I have worried aloud for years that our national dialogue about transportation is too simplistic. It’s not simply a math problem. It’s more of a situation where, yes, we need resources, but we also have to point resources to the results we want. Today I think it is a problem that we have a Highway Trust Fund that is relatively static. Eighty cents on the dollar is going to go to roads and 20 cents on the dollar is going to transit. If you’re in a community that would do better by flipping the ratio, we don’t have the mechanics to do that today. We need a more flexible approach. And that’s going to require breaking some eggs within the conventional transportation community, but I also think it would create the kind of support behind the scale of resources that would meet or get us close to solving the infrastructure deficit.
How do you feel about the implementation of self-driving vehicles in the near future?
It’s more art than science. It’s a balance. And depending on what your goals are, you may approach it differently. We expect the autonomous vehicle to come faster than even people were expecting three or four years ago. Because of that we didn’t have the luxury of lots of time to develop regulations around that, so we laid out guidance. The guidance is not only a call to do certain things today, but it actually lays out a glide path for future action by the department, and also helps our state stakeholders, our local stakeholders, the private sector, and others understand where we see the field of play and where we expect those actors to play in helping to guide the new technology into existence.
On the other hand, our vehicle-to-vehicle efforts have been regulatory. We have a rule for vehicle-to-vehicle that we put out in December. In that case, you have a technology that can be safety enhancing, but only if we get all vehicles to work within the system. You can imagine if we hadn’t put a rule out there, we’d have many manufacturers practicing vehicle-to-vehicle communications in ways that wouldn’t communicate across the whole fleet. The rule helps to clarify and lay out the ground rules and now there’s certainty and clarity around it. Different approaches are going to be called for and government is going to have to be very selective about what it uses to achieve expected results.
Last week the EPA locked in more fuel-efficient emission standards for 2025. Where do you stand on efforts to get more environmentally friendly vehicles on the road and the likelihood that this policy will stay in place?
The incentive structure has already changed over the last eight years and vehicles are largely more efficient than they were eight years ago. For many reasons the auto industry recognizes the need to continue moving in that direction. How much force is applied by the future administration is an open question. But we feel we’ve laid a very strong foundation for a much cleaner transportation system, for light vehicles, medium-sized vehicles, and heavy-duty vehicles.
In the time you’ve been secretary, the definition of “car company” has changed. We now have Google and Uber acting as car companies. How should we look at these new players going forward?
It’s an old American story in many ways. When the automobile was created, there were a bunch of new actors. People came into the marketplace in a relatively short period of time. The automobile evolved, because of the collective wisdom of innovators. In the mid-1960s, President Johnson had the wisdom to create the US Department of Transportation to add a much more central safety focus not only to the automobile, but to transportation in general.
In this relatively conventional space, we now have a group of innovators who are coming in who sometimes aren’t as used to the rigors of the US DOT or NHTSA, sometimes having to learn how to work through those channels. The approach we’ve taken has been open and transparent. We’ve worked to put guidance in place both where we think where we’re going to be and where we think others should focus their attention.
I won’t be secretary anymore. I want to be clear to my successor that I understand the difference between being secretary and having opinions about transportation. I will continue to have opinions and thoughts. I am sure that I will find a way to share those. Of course, I’ve been the beneficiary of a remarkable group of past secretaries. When I’ve picked up the phone to call, they’ve always answered enthusiastically and of course I will return that favor to my successor at any juncture.
What do you hope your legacy will be as secretary of transportation?
I’ve almost taken an architect's approach to building a system that works more seamlessly and points itself more toward our future than our past. We did things like the Smart City Challenge, which opened the imagination of the American public on how all this technology can fit into our lives and make our lives easier and better and help transportation planners make better decisions. We also worked to close the opportunity gaps through pilot programs, strengthening Title VI, and updating our needbook guidance, and we also pushed for New York and New Jersey to take that Gateway Project and get it down. The before-after story is significant in that the mindset has changed. It can work against us if we get too nostalgic and retrospective. If can work for us if we get prospective and active. We’ve moved the country to a prospective and active mindset.
Photography by James Bareham.