Pete Butigeg is currently the 19th Secretary of Transportation sworn on February 3, 2021.
Thousands of years ago, an unnamed innovator created the wheel, the most famous early invention of mankind. And since then, the story of transportation has been one of human creativity, innovation, and technology. From electronic scooters to spacecraft, technology shapes the journey of most humans, whether it’s historic space flight or daily cross-town commuting.
At the US Department of Transportation, my colleagues and I are thinking about how transportation technology is evolving day by day. We use policy tools to support these innovations and ensure that people in the United States have convenience, security, and financial opportunities.
At any point in history, and certainly within us, innovation shapes and transforms the way people and things move to where they are needed. However, in recent years, “innovation” has become a buzzword and there is a risk of losing its meaning. And as we fight the ever-changing and rapidly evolving world of transportation technology, policy makers run the risk of losing our focus.
As policy makers, we must prioritize. It is necessary to evaluate which important innovations have been independently developed and require federal support for basic research. We must consider when we should give as much room as possible to ly develop the technology, and when it raises concerns that regulation is needed to keep people safe.
The current decade is particularly full of challenges and opportunities from the development of transportation technology. The rise of electric and self-driving cars, the proliferation of recreational and commercial drones, new attention to cybersecurity vulnerabilities in infrastructure, increasingly routine commercial space travel, and perhaps the most urgent means of transportation. I have witnessed high stakes races to reduce the number of cars. Affect our climate before it’s too late.
The role of public policy in these changes is not always clear, but it is always important. To inform our work, today our department has established a set of six guiding principles for our work on transportation innovation.
Innovation is not an end in itself, but an opportunity for improvement. Our innovation efforts should serve our most important public policy goals, such as creating economic opportunities, promoting equitable access to transportation, and responding to climate crises.
Innovation should be shaped in a way that helps America win the 21st century, with transportation systems and infrastructure that make communities more competitive, adaptable and resilient.
We need to support our workers, knowing that our innovation strategy can help us define whether a particular technology development meets the potential to bring economic benefits to everyone.
Good innovation strategies enable experimentation and can be learned from setbacks. Because they are an integral part of the scientific method that underpins all inventions and discoveries.
Our approach to innovation needs to recognize the clear but relevant roles of the public, private and academic sectors and focus on opportunities to collaborate.
And finally, our policies need to be flexible and adapt to changing technologies. This is because policies that are meaningful only in current or past situations cannot prepare for an evolving future.
These principles help ensure that the great potential of US transportation innovation benefits our country and its people. For some, “government” and “innovation” are not naturally linked words. But in reality, the public sector has always played an important role in unleashing the innovative capabilities of the American people.
Think of a smartphone, an invention that changed our lives in just a few years. Smartphones can be the result of private sector inventions and marketing. This is the original role of private companies, not the government sector. But all the technologies that smartphones rely on, such as microprocessors, lithium batteries, touch screens, GPS, and in fact the Internet itself, are supported or invented by government researchers.
Some of the big tech companies like Google, Apple and Tesla benefited from government subsidies, loan guarantees, or other public support in the early stages of growth.
The government is far from the source of all inventions, but it has a responsibility to help ensure that all inventions are safe and practical for the general public.
The government did not invent planes, trains, or cars, but built airports, railroad tracks, and highways. We have enacted legislation requiring seat belts and airbags and built an air traffic control system to allow people to move safely.
As Secretary of Transportation, I was able to see first-hand the latest frontiers of transportation innovation in our country.
Last year in Georgia, we saw the country’s first solar road to supply clean power to a nearby electric vehicle (EV) charger. In Oregon, we have tested one of the electric buses that cities across the country are using as a cleaner and quieter alternative to outdated diesel vehicles. And in North Carolina, we visited advanced laboratories working on the future of pavement, including very important and unattractive, but more durable asphalt and materials that can recycle carbon dioxide.
American businesses and scientists work every day pushing the boundaries of what transportation can do. And our department works every day to support basic research and maintain guardrails that ensure that those technologies are deployed in a safe, fair and clean way. Over the next few years, these core principles will guide you through that task. Thanks to President Biden’s historic bipartisan infrastructure law, there are new resources to support these efforts.
These investments will help more Americans adopt electric vehicles and save on fuel costs. They help more children get on the bus to school without being exposed to toxic gas. And they will involve more people in the creation of future infrastructure.
Perhaps the most difficult thing to predict when it comes to transportation innovation is how and when these developments affect our daily lives. It took less than 60 years from the first flight on Kitty Hawk to the first American space flight by the crew. Less than a decade after the first smartphones hit the market, ride-sharing overtook the use of taxis in many American cities. The electric car was commercialized in 1902 at my hometown of Studebaker in South Bend, Indiana. Most of the 20th century disappeared and reappeared as the dominant force in the 21st century.
It is not the job of policy makers to infer and direct when and how these advances will evolve. But our role in supporting, nurturing and protecting the work of transportation innovation is essential, a very important time in the American transportation story. Ten years from now, there will be countless changes in the way people and things move between countries and the world. And the Ministry of Transport is here to support these innovations and ensure that they benefit all of us.
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