In his final months on the job, US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx has been vocal about the pressing need to repair America’s broken infrastructure, and all the ways in which technology will fundamentally change the way we move. With 55,000 employees and a budget of over $70 billion, the Department of Transportation is a massive enterprise responsible for regulating American air, maritime, and surface transportation spaces. But the organization’s directives can have far-reaching implications: the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 established the modern freeway system, which divided communities but also redefined how Americans traveled long distances. In September, the DoT released a landmark autonomous vehicles policy that will speed up the safe deployment of autonomous vehicles: self-driving cars, the report asserted, will save lives and make transportation both more efficient and accessible. The policy sets forth rules for manufacturing and sales of autonomous vehicles, requires companies to share research data with federal regulators, and promotes protection for passenger privacy. Foxx’s vision for US transportation also includes high-speed rail, GPS tracking systems for airplanes, and drones that will replace trucks to deliver goods to your doorstep. When we sat down with Foxx in late September he was candid about his thoughts, and eager to talk about why changing how we get around is inevitable, and crucial to moving the nation forward.
It’s November, 2021: what does the world look like?
By 2021, we will see autonomous vehicles in operation across the country in ways that we [only] imagine today… Families will be able to walk out of their homes and call a vehicle, and that vehicle will take them to work or to school. We're going to see transit systems sharing services with some of these companies. It's not just autonomy in the vehicles. You're going to see trucks running more closely together, which result in fuel savings and positive climate impact. You’ll see companies that will start to use unmanned aircraft to deliver products to us. My daughter, who will be 16 in 2021, won’t have her driver’s license. She will be using a service.
Autonomous vehicles are the biggest disruptors we’ve seen in transportation since the horse went the way of the automobile. What are some of the big challenges you envision in our near future?
One of the biggest challenges has been the absence in clarity of how autonomous vehicles are going to be integrated into the bloodstream of America's transportation system. What safety regulations are going to apply? What role will the federal government play in regulating autonomous vehicles? What should states do? Where will private sector market players be asked to lead on things beyond just the development of the vehicle itself? We recently released the Autonomous Vehicle Policy that lays out where all these different players belong and how the federal government will be approaching this long-term. Today, you go to the DMV to get your driver's license and that is the state's way of regulating the operations of a vehicle. What happens when the software is operating the vehicle?
There are studies that show Americans aren't quite ready for autonomous vehicles. How do you make people believe that this is something that they're going to want in their everyday lives?
The acceptance issue is something that the industry and government have to be focused on. The most important question that consumers will have is, is it safe? Early indications are that the first few minutes of a ride in an autonomous car can be pretty scary to people who haven't been in one before. But people get used to it quickly. People having real-life experiences with the technology will help in the long run. I'm sure that when the horse-and-buggy gave way to the automobile, there was probably an acceptance factor there as well. This is part of the progression of technology and transportation. I believe strongly that in the future, people will trust [autonomous cars]. Self-driving is coming to everything. It's just a question of what the sequencing is. You're going to see trucks that are driverless, and ships and trains that have self-driving features.
Data collection can enable autonomy, but only if it's shared across the industry. How do you encourage that sharing?
I want us to have a broader imagination of how data can lift the safety advantages of autonomous cars. [If] I drive over a pothole and you are driving behind me, and see what happens to my car, you glean that understanding and you think to avoid that pothole. If an autonomous car runs over a pothole, will it be able to communicate and share that data not only with cars of the same type [of car], or a particular manufacturer, but [with] all autonomous vehicles regardless of who made it? That's one question I think the industry needs to spend time on, because there are issues around propriety of information. We found in the aviation arena that information is shared between commercial carriers all the time on an anonymous basis. [The information] doesn't identify the carrier specifically, but it identifies the situation and it allows us to attack safety challenges much more quickly. What if, for example, a car… averts an accident by making a particular move? Can that information now be shared among other vehicles?
In the first half of the 20th century in and around New York City, planner Robert Moses designed the highway system to create physical barriers between communities. It was destructive, and it showed how transportation can be a civil rights and social justice issue. How do you adopt policies that address those causes?
This age of technology we're in is going to revolutionize the way we think about transportation. There are risks, because the typical trajectory of technology is that it goes to [those] who can afford it the most first and then over time, becomes more ubiquitous. In an era and in a sector where so much of the investment is driven by government, one of the challenges we have is to think about, at the outset, how this technology can be relevant to people across the whole socio-economic spectrum.
Our highway system is the product of legislation from the Eisenhower years when we were a country that had laws of segregation. Many of our citizens could not vote. In many corners of our country, there were projects that were designed in the 1950s that ultimately got built along racial or economic lines. You go to New Orleans, Syracuse, Staten Island, Seattle, or Los Angeles, and you can see those distinct lines that have been drawn and the highways and overpasses that are still there — that are actually walls between people.
How do we repair a crumbling infrastructure that wasn’t designed correctly in the first place?
I’ve not yet seen a European city that has a complex network of freeways in the heart of its interior. Though the technology was available, the Europeans recognized that there’s something about the fabric of the interior they didn’t want to tear away. People are talking about the possibility of tearing down some of these freeways that run into the interior of our cities. We see Rochester, New York doing that right now, and serious talks in Syracuse. In Columbus, Ohio, they didn’t tear down the freeway, they put a physical landscape on top of it to reconnect an area that had been bifurcated by a freeway.
Some say Americans will never give up their cars. How do you create a mass transit system that appeals to Americans?
Two of the largest groups in our society today are the boomers and the millennials. In some ways, they’re both looking for the same thing: to live closer to the central core of cities, where they don’t have to get in a car all the time. What our system hasn’t done is respond to those demographic changes. Out of our Highway Trust Fund, 80 cents on every dollar spent goes into our road system and only 20 cents goes into transit. For a country that is urbanizing, the way we pay for infrastructure doesn’t correlate. We need a more flexible funding approach at the federal, state, and local level that is demand-driven, not supply-side driven, and that responds to what people want. High-speed rail is going to be something people embrace as we see it happen in places like California and possibly Texas and Florida. The more it succeeds, the more people are going to want it where they live. That, coupled with fixed rail transit, bus transit, roads and highways, bike paths, and places for people to walk are going to give the people the choices they want.
What does rural life look like in 2021?
Rural America is shrinking, and I don’t just mean by population. I mean by land mass. As our urban centers get hungrier and swallow up more of the outlying areas, that has squeezed out some of what we historically refer to as rural areas. That has implications both for urban areas and rural areas because those rural areas are often the supplier of things like food and some manufacturing. One of the biggest game changers we could have is a more robust passenger rail system. That’s how people can continue to live in one place and have access to the jobs and other amenities that cities offer without having to give up the lifestyle they’ve chosen.
Aviation is another area that you have to address. How will our skies be different?
You’ll experience 50 percent fewer delays when you’re at the airport, because of technology that we’re investing in called Next-Generation Aviation. Next-Gen is taking us off of a 1940s radar system [and] into a GPS tracking system for airplanes. If you can precisely track a plane, then you don’t have to be as imprecise about the routes. You can allow the planes to fly closer together. We’re going to see efficiency as we load up, fewer delays, and routes that are more direct and hopefully faster.
As transportation improves, what kind of ripple effects are we going to see through the rest of society?
If we do it right, transportation is going to enable our society to become much more fully integrated. In Columbus, Ohio, the city that won the Smart Cities Challenge, they have an infant mortality rate four times the national average. It was a point of embarrassment for the community. They’re developing an app that will allow mothers to set their doctors’ appointments up using the app and plan a transit trip, so they have a way to get there. If the bus is late, the app will help them reschedule that meeting with the doctor. That’s a creative use of technology to problem-solve. My biggest fear is that we won’t be intentional about trying to build a concept of equity into how we develop and deploy technology.
What are you most excited for?
I’m most excited about our country getting transportation right and thinking about transportation choices that enhance communities in fundamental ways — creating access to technology for people who live in underserved areas, [technology] that reduces the cost of transportation and gives them a way to get to the doctor’s office or to school. The existence of a staging area for rideshares that attracts new housing, neighborhood services like pharmacies and grocery stores that begin to provide an underpinning of economic activity in an area. It starts with the idea that we’ve got to democratize our transportation system in way that provides access for everybody.
What will define the next era of transportation?
We have an opportunity to drive forward a global transformation of the relationship between human beings and machines. It’s a pretty heavy responsibility. We have to be careful about safety and think about the societal disruptions that come about as a result of it. I’ve heard a lot of people worrying about sprawl and labor market disruptions. Those are things that we need to have our eyes set on. The advantages of safety, being able to avert some percentage of the 94 percent of crashes that are attributable to human factors, allow the elderly and people who have disabilities to have more freedom to move about, being able to help families that spend their second highest amount of money on transportation to capture some of those dollars back.
Where do we find these ideas?
When the Federal Interstate Highway Act was passed in 1956, it was a top-down strategy. The federal government was going to pay 90 percent of the cost of putting the interstate system in place. Local state government decided where the highways would fit, but largely it was a federal approach. We have an opportunity to reverse that with this revolution. We can see many examples of how to tailor technology solutions to cities. A community that has cold weather and high elevation may have a different approach to mobility than a place that is flat and has sun most of the year. Cities are going to have to be much more sophisticated about what choices they make when it comes to investing in these technologies.
Do we need to drive?
The whole point is that someone can make that choice. Someone can choose not to drive if they don’t want to, or if they choose to drive they have the safest possible options to get from one place to another. There was a time when folks had no choice and there are still rural parts of our country where there is no practical choice. Our study of the next 30 years of transportation needs suggest that we’ve run out of space in some areas to build more road capacity and our population is growing at such an exponential level that even if we physically could provide that infrastructure, it’s not going to keep up with the growth.
There’s an opportunity for us in this era with data and analytics. I’ve had situations in this job and in my previous role as a mayor, where I thought I knew the answer to a transportation problem, but when I saw the data, it told me something different. The ability of things like autonomous vehicles and intelligent transportation systems to give us more information about how people use the transportation infrastructure is built can be enormous. One of the challenges is that we get so nostalgic about transportation. We think, “Gosh man, it was great when we had the car and we could just get on the freeway and go as far and as fast as we want it to.” That’s not where we are today. Our roads are crowded. People’s travel times are getting longer. If there’s a solution presented to the average person that will shorten the trip they’re taking every day, man, they will run for it. What I’ve tried to do in this agency over the time I’ve had the privilege to lead it is to focus more on the problems we have today and the problems we see coming around the corner because that's where the solutions are. I hope that some of the work we’ve done to build cornerstones for autonomous vehicles and for next-gen technology in aviation and for drones is adding up to a future where we see travel times going down in our generation. We are at risk of being the first generation of Americans that pass on longer travel times to the generations behind it. Much of what I’m trying to do is to assure that doesn’t happen.
This interview has been edited and condensed
Editorial Lead: Michael Zelenko; Design: Frank Bi, Yuri Victor, James Bareham, William Joel, Georgia Cowley; Photography: James Bareham; Development: Frank Bi, Yuri Victor; Illustrations: Slanted Studios; Director: Tom Connors; Field producer: Sarah Bishop; Director of Photography: Ian McAlpin; Sound recording: Brian Buckley; Design and animation: Lunar North; Executive producer: Tre Shallowhorn; Creative director: James Bareham; Motion graphics director: William Joel; Color: Max Jeffrey; Sound design and mixing: Andrew Marino.