Automakers and ride-hail companies are racing to put self-driving cars on the road. In a few weeks, Uber passengers in Pittsburgh will be able to hail self-driving Volvos. Last month, Tesla announced its hopes to build an autonomous ride-hailing fleet. And this month, Ford said it plans to mass-produce autonomous vehicles by 2021. These timelines might seem ambitious, considering how self-driving vehicles still have backup humans behind the wheel. But US Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who has done several Silicon Valley tours and ridden in Google’s self-driving cars, thinks the transition could be even sooner.
“For the last couple of years, folks have asked me, ‘When do you think people will be able to get into an autonomous car?’” Foxx told BuzzFeed News in an interview. “I’ve said, ‘You know, it could be five years, it could be less.’”
As Silicon Valley and Detroit have been reimagining transportation, the US government has been contemplating how to develop standards for this unproven technology. In a few weeks, the Department of Transportation is planning to release guidelines for autonomous vehicles. BuzzFeed News sat down with Foxx to talk about the future of transportation.
Making sure autonomous vehicles are safe is the biggest concern
Humans are responsible for more than 90% of car crashes, but of course nobody wants that blame to simply shift to machines. "Where we spend most of our time is figuring out how safe a technology is,” Foxx told BuzzFeed News. The Department of Transportation is still working on its guidelines, but Foxx hinted — as he has in the past — that the agency wants to conduct its own testing and examination of self-driving technologies before they are released to the public. “It’s going to be far better for everybody if we have a chance to be part of the construction, if you will, of a new system,” Foxx added.
He said that he doesn’t know what questions the department will pose to automakers, but that companies should be “working with us on the front end as they’re developing the technology, so we understand it and we’re not having to pore through 15 treatises to figure out how the technology works.”
The guidelines are coming after the fatal crash of a Tesla while the car’s semiautonomous feature, called Autopilot, was activated. The accident is under federal investigation to determine whether Autopilot was at fault. Although the feature is named Autopilot, Tesla advises drivers to still keep their hands on the wheel.
Foxx couldn’t elaborate on the details of an ongoing investigation. But he said the incident underscored how critical it is to consider how humans will interact with new vehicle technology.
“There are YouTubes of people riding around in Autopilot cars in the backseat, filming themselves,” he said. “At some point, as this technology evolves, there has to be a massive public relations campaign to convince people that they can’t use the technology in ways that aren’t intended.”
Foxx’s department is forming a federal advisory committee on autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence, which will consider the relationship between humans and driverless cars. How do you teach a person what they can and can’t do in an autonomous vehicle? What if the car has some technology that takes over for the human, but the driver is still expected to remain vigilant and ready to take over at any time, as in the case of Tesla’s Autopilot? The committee will attempt to answer those questions.
Ride-hailing is becoming public transportation
When the Department of Transportation released a 30-year traffic report last year, Foxx told BuzzFeed he thought public transportation would start “behaving more like Uber.”
A year and a half later, public transit agencies across the country are not just behaving like Uber — they’re subsidizing it outright for their residents. Altamonte Springs, Florida, 10 miles north of Orlando, subsidizes 20% of the cost of every Uber ride within its borders, and bumps that discount up to 25% if the rider is going to or from the local light rail. Centennial, Colorado, a suburb of Denver, began offering residents free Lyft rides to the light rail station this summer. Foxx told BuzzFeed it wouldn’t be surprising if more agencies followed the trend — and eventually, the majority of public transportation could become a string of private services.
“As a former mayor, I can say it with confidence: It’s all part of trying to figure out how to do more with less,” Foxx said. “A transit agency is going to say, ‘Look, the cost of acquiring 50 new buses to connect that last mile is going to be more expensive for us than plugging in our operating budget some additional money to connect to a ride-sharing service.’”
Some critics have raised concerns that turning over public transportation to private companies could leave out the people who need public transportation most: lower-income people who might not have smartphones, or who live in areas that are less lucrative for drivers, given that Uber and Lyft employees are private contractors and earn their wages based on each drive. But Foxx said cities could mitigate some of these criticisms; for example, some cities have suggested placing kiosks on the streets to allow people to call for rides.
In the more distant future, even the Hyperloop seems possible
Some of Silicon Valley’s emerging transportation technologies are still beyond Foxx and his department. “We’re going to almost have to have a part of our department that’s like ‘The Office of Stuff No One’s Thought Of,’” Foxx said.
Ideas like the Hyperloop — the tube dreamed up by Elon Musk that would zip through a pipe and transport people from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 30 minutes — bring up the same questions as driverless technology, Foxx says.
“The fundamental question for us is going to be ... how do we evaluate that through the prism of safety?” he says.
Foxx said the department hasn’t formed any agreements or offered funding to help move the Hyperloop project forward. (Hyperloop One, a company with $92 million in funding, has an agreement with Russia to build a Hyperloop in Moscow.)
But could the Hyperloop actually become a real thing that people commute on? Foxx and his department are preparing for it.
“We’re certainly watching,” Foxx said. “We’re paying attention to it.”