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U.S. Transportation Secretary: Self-Driving Car Rules Are Coming -- Eventually (Q&A)

Anthony Foxx wants to be an ally to tech companies plowing into transit.

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

If tech companies keep burrowing into the car industry, they should get to know Anthony Foxx.

Foxx, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation since 2013, is certainly itching to know tech. He spoke at CES on Thursday and will keynote be a featured speaker at South by Southwest in March. He has been holding court with Silicon Valley titans, whose businesses are increasingly aimed at remaking transit.

And he’s trying to spur this remaking on his own. His CES appearance came on the heels of a splashy $50 million DOT Smart City Challenge — a first-of-its-kind Federal grant to a mid-sized metropolis that shows particular gusto in envisioning a tech-savvy urban future. On Thursday, the DOT announced it would be gifting autonomous systems for buses to the winning city, courtesy of Israeli firm Mobileye.

Foxx, who is likely to be heading out with the Obama Administration, also appears intent on setting national self-driving policies before he departs, particularly on vehicle-to-vehicle communication standards. For now, robot car rules are left to the states. The first draft regulation to come out, from California, drew the ire of Google for its prohibition on fully driverless cars. Foxx strongly suggested that his agency may deploy overriding Federal rules, but stopped short of giving specifics. “We’re a little ways away,” he said.

Re/code caught up with the Secretary very briefly after his keynote on Thursday.

Mark Bergen: What’s your central message for tech companies involved in transportation?

Secretary Anthony Foxx: Historically, we may seem like a foreign creature to many of the tech companies that are used to doing great innovation and moving it directly to the marketplace. In the automobile area, there’s a very elaborate rule-making and regulatory framework.

What we’re trying to do is to find out where there are touch points in our regulatory system that would prevent innovation happening in the automobile space. And trying to get ahead of that and smooth that out before we have a situation where the technology is ready to go and we’ve not figured out how to help it get there.

Right now, there are two competing camps with self-driving cars. There’s Google, which thinks cars should be fully driverless, and the automakers, which support an incremental implementation. Where do you sit? Is there a point where you need to step in? And how so?

On these types of questions, we as an agency should produce guidance on how we are going to approach this technology — and how we want the industry to approach it. And that guidance is being worked on as we speak. I expect in the next days and weeks I’ll be able to make some announcement about that.

What do you think of the recent California draft rules?

That’s a case in point where guidance from U.S. DOT might help resolve some of the issues that are there. So we’ll see.

Like some of the objections from tech?

Yeah, we’re listening to the tech community. We have gone out to many of the companies and said, “Look at our rules and tell us where we’re going to be at loggerheads. Let’s see if we can do something ahead of that to work together.” Of course, we cannot compromise on safety. But if it’s a matter of methods and means that don’t implicate safety, then we have a shot at trying to sort those out.

Do you see more innovation coming from the Valley or from Detroit?

Well, I see both.

We have to be agnostic here. It’s actually a little new for us, because automakers have been largely in the business for decades and decades. But there are these new entrants that are coming in, either as suppliers or manufacturers, and we have to adjust to the environment.

When will we see fully autonomous cars on the road?

I think we’re going to see it within five years. That doesn’t mean 100 percent penetration; that just means market availability. But I actually think we’re going to see it within five years.

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