At the International Transport Forum 2019 held in Leipzig, Austria, Elaine L. Chao, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, spoke at a plenary session on the relevance of futuristic technology in the transportation space.
Chao initiated the discussion by stating that the U.S. is serious about bolstering its transportation corridors, investing about $88 billion each year into the sector – an infrastructural push that brings competitiveness and economic vitality to the country. “We need to be prepared for the future, which is to engage in new transportation technologies in a way that addresses legitimate public concerns about safety, security and privacy without hampering innovation,” she said.
Chao registered some concern over the patchwork of state-by-state regulations which may delay the mainstream adoption of innovative technology, as in the case of autonomous vehicles and drones. “Our country is very diverse, and we want our communities to develop for themselves what they need, and coordinate at the federal level to create regulations that will address issues,” she said. “And of course, we want to make sure there are ample opportunities for the private sector to get involved. In this administration, we do not believe that the government is the innovator. We facilitate and create the environment in which innovation will prevail.”
Autonomous vehicle technology is a disruption that has garnered much attention in recent years, which Chao mentioned is extremely encouraging, as it can provide the disabled and elderly communities freedom through mobility – a welcome spectacle in truly democratizing transportation. Chao also highlighted the fact that 71 percent of Americans get nervous when they are told that they would be getting into a driverless vehicle.
“So we try to avoid the word ‘driverless’ and use ‘self-driving’ instead to reduce anxiety a little bit. I speak very candidly with car manufacturers and challenge them to share their knowledge with the rest of the world, as consumer acceptance will be the key to the success of their vision of transportation systems,” said Chao. “We are actually more forgiving of human error, but it seems we are not so forgiving when a machine makes it.”
With regard to the regulatory environment for accommodating futuristic technology, it is essential to create new policy approaches in which the government coordinates with local entities to address some of the cross-border and national issues, said Chao. “I think the pace of change will be faster than what some people like, but slower than expected by others. This will give us the opportunity to work out some of these issues like insurance, for example,” she said.
Chao stated that the U.S. has over 1.5 million drones and 135,000 drone operators, a category that did not exist until five years ago. The government currently restricts drones from flying very low and over the heads of people, flying out of sight and also flying it in the darkness.
“We currently have 10 pilot projects going on in different climatic conditions and geographic areas, to test these conditions for drone flight. Our challenge now is on how to safely integrate drones into the national airspace,” said Chao.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) mandates that every drone in the U.S. be registered in its database, which gives it a unique identification number. Regardless of that, it is hard for officials to pinpoint the ID of a drone when it is in flight, making it a matter of concern for both the agency, law enforcement and the U.S. Department of Defense.
Drones can be used for surveillance, which can be dangerous in the hands of bad actors. For instance, London Gatwick Airport descended into chaos last December, as drones were spotted flying close to the airport. Authorities were forced to close down the airport for 36 hours just before Christmas. Though this was not a security issue, the event paints a picture of how unregulated the drone space is at the moment, and the need for concrete regulations to be set in place to avoid mishaps in the future.