Steering innovation toward the public good

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Millennium ago, some unknown inventor created humanity’s most famous early invention: the wheel. And since then, the story of transportation has been one of human creativity, innovation, and technology. From e-scooters to spacecraft, technology shapes most human travel, whether it’s historic space flight or daily cross-town commutes.

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At the US Department of Transportation, my colleagues and I think every day about how transportation technologies are evolving, and we use our policy tools to support these innovations and ensure they are of convenience to the American people. Provide security and economic opportunities.

At some point in history, and certainly in our country, innovation shapes and reshapes how people and goods go where they need to be. But in recent years, “innovation” has become such a buzzword that it risks losing its meaning – and policymakers risk losing our attention as we contend with the ever-changing and rapidly developing world of transportation technology. Huh.


As policy makers, we must prioritize. We need to assess which important innovations will develop on their own, and which need federal support for basic research. We should consider when a technology should be given as much room as possible to develop it experimentally, and when it raises concerns that require regulation to keep people safe.

The current decade is full of challenges and opportunities especially from the development of transportation technology. We are seeing the rise of electric and autonomous vehicles, widespread adoption of recreational and commercial drones, a renewed focus on cybersecurity vulnerabilities in our infrastructure, increasingly routine commercial space travel, and, perhaps Most essential, the high-stakes race to dramatically reduce transportation’s impact on our climate before it is too late.

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In the midst of these changes, the role of public policy is not always clear, but it is always important. To inform our work, today our department is establishing a set of six guiding principles for our work on innovation in transportation.

Innovation is not an end in itself, but an opportunity to improve. Our innovation efforts must serve our most important public policy goals, such as creating economic opportunity, advancing equitable access to transportation, and helping to combat the climate crisis.

Innovation must 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.

Our innovation strategy must support workers, knowing that our choices will help define whether a technological development fulfills its potential to generate economic benefits for all.

A good innovation strategy allows experimentation and learning from setbacks, as these are indispensable parts of the scientific method that underpin all invention and discovery.

Our approach to innovation should focus on opportunities for collaboration, recognizing the distinct but related roles of the public, private and academic sectors.

And finally, our policies must be flexible and adaptable as technology changes, because we cannot prepare for an evolving future with a policy that only makes sense under current or past conditions.

These principles will help us ensure that the vast potential of American transportation innovation benefits our country and its people. For some people, “government” and “innovation” are not words that naturally go together. But in reality, the public sector has always been instrumental in unleashing the innovative potential of the American people.

Consider the smartphone, an invention that changed the way we live in just a few short years. Smartphones may simply be the result of private sector inventions and marketing – the natural role of private companies, not government departments. But the technologies on which smartphones depend – such as microprocessors, lithium batteries, touchscreens, GPS, and indeed the Internet itself – were all supported or invented by government researchers.

Some of our biggest tech companies—including Google, Apple, and Tesla—benefit from government subsidies, loan guarantees, or other public support early in their development.

And while the government is far from the source of all inventions, it has a responsibility to help ensure that all inventions are safe and practical for the public.

The government didn’t invent planes, trains, or automobiles, but it built airports, laid tracks, and built highways. It created laws requiring seat belts and air bags, and created an air traffic control system so that people could travel safely.

As Transport Secretary, I am privileged to witness firsthand the latest frontiers of transport innovation in our country.

Last year in Georgia, I saw the nation’s first solar roadway, which provides clean power for nearby electric vehicle (EV) chargers. In Oregon, I tested one of the electric buses that cities across the country are adopting as a clean and quiet alternative to older diesel vehicles. And in North Carolina, I visited an advanced research lab working on an extremely important, if glamorous, topic: the future of pavement, which includes more sustainable asphalt and even materials that emit carbon dioxide. can recycle.

American companies and scientists are working every day pushing the limits of what is possible in transportation. And our department is at work every day to support basic research and maintain railings that ensure those technologies are exposed in a safe, equitable and clean way. In years to come, these core principles will guide that work—and thanks to President Biden’s landmark bipartisan infrastructure law, we have new resources to support those efforts.

These investments will help more Americans adopt electric vehicles and save money on fuel. They will help take more children to school by bus without being exposed to toxic fumes. And they will hire more people to build the infrastructure of the future.

When it comes to transportation innovation, perhaps the hardest thing to predict is how and when these developments will affect our daily lives. Less than 60 years elapsed between Kitty Hawk’s first flight and the first crewed US space flight. Less than 10 years after the first smartphones hit the market, ride-sharing had overtaken taxi use in many US cities. Electric vehicles were in commercial production in 1902 at the Studebaker factories in my hometown of South Bend, Indiana—all but vanishing for much of the 20th century, then re-emerging as a dominant force in the 21st.

It is not for policymakers to predict or decide how and when these progress will unfold. But our role in supporting, promoting and safeguarding the work of transportation innovation is vital, and it comes at an exceptionally important time in the story of American transportation. The coming decade will bring innumerable transformational changes in the way people and goods move around the country and the world. And the Department of Transportation will be here to help support those innovations and make sure they benefit all of us.

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