DOT’s journey from reactive to proactive regulation

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The Transportation Department is embarking in a major shift from reactionary to proactive regulation because of the innovative and nascent technologies emerging in the transportation sector in recent years, Secretary Anthony Foxx said Tuesday.

With regulations on small unmanned aircraft taking effect Aug. 29 and the recent release of its framework for regulating autonomous vehicles, the department has had to pivot its focus to creating regulations that aren’t overly prescriptive in nature, Foxx said.

“For most of the fifty years at the U.S. Department of Transportation, we’ve been regulating mature transportation technologies, and so there was an ability to be prescriptive about how you regulate those mature technologies that you don’t have in some of these emerging areas,” he said Tuesday during a White House-hosted conversation on “The Future of Aviation.”

Now, he explained, the department’s approach has to be proactive.

“We have to think in terms, not so much can you or can’t you, but how?” he said. “And we have to build safety culture in to the very ground floor of these technologies as they come about.”

One of the things that complicates that approach, Foxx said, is that most of the department’s authorities are in fact “reactive in nature.”

He said the department sometimes gets pushback when trying to be proactive; people affected by the regulations may fear the department is “mandating something.”   

Innovators have trouble sometimes getting into an industry with heavy regulation risk. 

In the case of drones, for example, the current regulations were a long time coming. Helen Greiner, inventor of the Roomba and now the CEO of a commercial drone company, noted that the path for drones has been a rocky one. Most drone companies of the 1990s, Greiner noted, are out of business because they could not get permission to fly commercially.

“And that has driven some of the industry overseas, and some of the large companies like Google and Amazon actually went to test drones [overseas],” she said.

As Eric Allison — CEO of Zee.Aero, a company working towards flying cars — noted, “from any company’s perspective… in a highly regulated industry, regulatory uncertainty is kind of the no. 1 risk. And it’s probably the no. 2 risk, too, frankly. It’s a big deal.”

When it comes to the new drone regulations, however, Greiner said they have allowed for many real-world applications of the technology. Her company recently ran a DOT pilot to monitor traffic with drones.

“We have a persistent drone that, from a bird’s eye view, it can monitor traffic for several hours,” she said. “And that helped with both traffic management but also emergency response — getting emergency workers to the right place at the right time.”

She noted that “there’s just so many applications that we’re able to do today because of the opening of the regulations.”

Indeed, as White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough noted during the conversation, the administration’s analysis has shown the drone market could generate $82 billion for the U.S. economy and create more than 100,000 new jobs in the next 10 years.

Since the new regulation on drones took effect, McDonough also noted, 7,500 Americans have passed the remote pilot knowledge test offered by the Federal Aviation Administration, which he said he thought was “an early indication of the success of the ruling.”

[Read more: Commercial drone use expected to take flight under new regulations]

For autonomous vehicles, Foxx said he thinks the department made a step in the right direction that sets up a framework without hindering innovation.

“I think this is a real watershed moment for autonomous vehicles,” Foxx said. “Because now there is a very tangible conversation we can have about the details of how we get from here to there.”

Foxx did allude, however, to the need for Congress to eventually intervene in this arena.

“We’re doing everything we can within our authorities, but there will come a point where our ability to do it in the executive branch is going to end and the role of Congress is going to have to step in,” Foxx said.

Looking ahead, when the DOT released its policy for regulating autonomous vehicles, it also presented some possible options of new authorities the department could seek to regulate the technology, including what is called pre-market approval authority. Under that model the department would inspect and approve new technologies before they go to market instead of leaving certification up to automakers.

[Read more: Administration asserts role in regulating autonomous vehicles]

And those emerging technologies like autonomous vehicles or drones weren’t even on the map during Foxx’s confirmation hearing to become Transportation Secretary.

“The reality is I don’t think anyone has anticipated the rate of change in transportation when it comes to technology,” Foxx said. “It’s like the mobile phone was 15 years ago, all that’s coming into transportation so rapidly.”

His concern, he noted, “has been that while we’re moving into the Jetson’s era, we have Flintstone approaches to authority and regulations, so we can’t go the distance with this until we really think about things differently.”

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Departments, Transportation Department
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