Beyond Traffic: Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx & the Future [Interview]

Written by SXSW Staff Writer | Friday Sep 11th, 2015

2016 Interactive Featured Speaker: Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx. Photo courtesy of speaker.
The former mayor of Charlotte, Anthony Foxx was approved as the United States Secretary of Transportation in 2013. Born in North Carolina, he graduated from Davidson College (where he was the first African American to be elected student body president). Foxx is one of 20+ Featured Speakers already confirmed for the 2016 SXSW Interactive Festival. Read his interview below to get a taste of the many tech-related issues that he will cover in March in Austin.

SXSW: When most people think about the Secretary of Transportation, they think roads and highways. In today’s tech-savvy world, are roads and highways still the main focus of your job?
Foxx: Well, the scope of our work has always been broader than that, including aviation, rail, transit, and maritime. But in a lot of ways the focus of my job does not change. My focus is protecting travelers and the communities that goods move through and making sure all Americans have good transportation choices that connect them to the 21st century economy. And I do believe that technology can help us do much better in both of those areas.

SXSW: In recent years, highway congestion in Austin has become a significant problem. This problem often spikes during big events (such as SXSW). What can the Secretary of Transportation do about local traffic problems, such as what we experience in Austin?
Foxx: This is a growing problem all over the country. We put out a report called Beyond Traffic that lays out the trends and choices we need to make in transportation over the next 30 years. One of the things it tells us is that the average American currently spends the equivalent of five vacation days a year stuck in traffic, and if we don’t get on the ball it will get much worse. In the next 30 years we are going to have 70 million more Americans competing for road spaces, not to mention 65 percent more truck traffic, and our roads will of course not expand automatically to accommodate all of this additional traffic. I have traveled to more than 40 states now to talk about the need to increase our national commitment to making big improvements to our roads and providing people with more alternatives to driving.

SXSW: Does Washington DC understand the culture of Silicon Valley (and other tech hubs like Boston and Austin)? Do tech hubs like Silicon Valley and Boston and Austin understand the culture of Washington DC?
Foxx: We absolutely understand the culture of Silicon Valley and the nation’s tech hubs, and we have been very proactive about increasing our level of understanding. We are very bullish about advancements like connected vehicle technology and automation, for instance, because we believe they can change the game for transportation safety and mobility. My daughter is 11. No one would be happier than me if automakers and manufacturers can deliver this technology before she turns 16.

SXSW: What are the best ways for startups to connect with policy makers? Can speaking at an event like SXSW help facilitate such connections?
Foxx: I think that leaders in government now see the value in attending events where they can have conversations with leaders in the tech sector. This year I have visited places like Google, Delphi Automotive and Carnegie Mellon University to see emerging technologies and meet with leaders there. These experiences have been very valuable and I plan to continue seeking out similar opportunities. I’m also open to invitations!

SXSW: A Daily Beast headline in March 2015 asked if SXSW can help make policy cool. Your thoughts on this question — is policy inherently un-cool?
Foxx: I think it is more important to focus on the fact that policy-making is incredibly impactful. Good policies give us a framework to be successful as a country. Bad ones, or outdated ones, of course have the opposite effect. Policies can lift people up or shut people in; they can encourage innovation or send a signal that government isn’t receptive to it. I think it would be pretty cool to put more emphasis on crafting policies and explaining them in a way that connects to how people live.

SXSW: The word “disruption” is very popular in the startup ecosystem. What is the most disruptive force with regards to the transportation industry in the United States?
Foxx: Disruption has always factored very heavily into transportation. Transportation was once powered by what nature gave us: our feet, our horses, and the wind in our sails. Eventually we made a wheel; after that we started making and improving great machines and building spaces for them to move on. Now we are in age of information. This is a very exciting time big data, advanced metrics and resulting GPS technologies can have an even more profound impact on how people and things move than any of the disruptive forces that came before them.

SXSW: What transportation-related startup do you find most intriguing and why?
Foxx: I am intrigued by all of them and actually want to issue more of a challenge. So far we have seen technology essentially make transportation more convenient for people. But a lot of these new tools could also be used to create more equity in transportation, particularly in low-income neighborhoods that don’t currently have as many quality transportation choices as higher-income neighborhoods do. Let’s try to not only help people move places more easily but help lift more people into the middle class, as well.

SXSW: What leader / CEO / visionary do you admire most in the tech industry and why?
Foxx: I have had a chance to meet quite a few of them and admire all of them. I will give a shout-out, though, to Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt. Eric and I shared a ride in a driverless vehicle this year when I visited the Google campus, which is actually where we released Beyond Traffic.

SXSW: Can high-speed rail ever catch on in the United States?
Foxx: It already has. Frankly the way we need to be looking at this is: Can Congress catch up? You have a time when more people are riding intercity passenger trains than ever before; when the nation’s first 220-MPH high-speed rail system has broken ground in California; when private sectors efforts are now happening in Florida and Texas; and when you have an Administration that has invested in more than 150 rail projects in 32 states. So you have people voting for this with their train tickets. You have the White House and the U.S. Department of Transportation totally onboard. But the problem, honestly, is that Congress back in 2010 zeroed out future funding for these types efforts. And we cannot expect high-speed rail to succeed in America without the sustainable, long term funding that has given rise to every other successful rail system in the world, not to mention our interstate highway system.

SXSW: Even beyond high-speed rail, lots of geeks are very excited about the possibilities of the Hyperloop. In your mind, will the Hyperloop ever transition from concept to reality?
Foxx: About a year ago I would have said the whole idea sounds like a bit of stretch and that it was hard to imagine something like that ever happening. But we do want to encourage experimentation. The private sector does have a history of supporting critical initiatives that moved the dial forward in transportation. And given how important intercity connections will be in the future, given the amount of traffic our highways will be inundated with, and given the difficulties I just mentioned as far as getting Congress to support rail, we need to be looking at every option we have that can keep us moving as a country.

SXSW: How long before self-driving cars are approved for public usage in the United States?
Foxx: We want it to happen as quickly as possible. It is really one of my big priorities to make sure that as this technology takes root that our Department is at the vanguard of crafting the regulatory framework will allow the market integration of these technologies to happen as soon as they are fully road-tested and -ready. We recently accelerated our timetable on a proposed rule that would require connected vehicle technology in vehicles.

SXSW: Do you think that self-driving cars will be a fundamental game changer in terms of how America (and the world) approaches point to point transportation?
Foxx: I do. As I said, the impacts to safety will be profound. But it could also free up roadway capacity by allowing cars to travel more closely to each other, and we would have far fewer traffic jams caused by crashes. People could use this time to be more productive as they typically are able to on a train, for instance. There is no doubt that driving, or not driving, a vehicle could be a completely different experience than what it is today.

SXSW: Over the next five years, will drones become the number one method of delivery for services such as Amazon? Does drone-related policy fall under the umbrella of issues that you work on?
Foxx: We aren’t in the business of making those types of predictions. But our approach to drones – we typically call them unmanned aircraft – is in some ways very similar to our approach to other technologies I’ve mentioned. We want to reap the benefits of these technologies as soon as possible and work with the private sector to implement them. Right now we are developing a regulatory framework that will ensure unmanned aircraft enter the national airspace safely. By the way, we did give Amazon the green light to allow test flights over private, rural land in Washington.

SXSW: You visited Austin in April 2015. What did you enjoy most about your short time in our city?
Foxx: I’ll have to say all the local craft beers and Austin’s great barbecue.

SXSW: What is the first thing that you read in the morning?
Foxx: I catch up on national news by reading the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and Politico. I also keep tabs on what is happening back in North Carolina, where I am from, by reading the Charlotte Observer, the Charlotte Business Journal and The News and Observer, which covers Raleigh.

SXSW: What is the last best book that you read?
Foxx: “The Bully Pulpit” by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

SXSW: Is there any downtime in your current role as Secretary of Transportation? If so, what do you do to relax?
Foxx: There is barely any downtime, but with the time I do have I like to spend with family.

SXSW: Elon Musk often talks about his desire to travel (and live on) Mars. Does a trip to Mars interest you — or do you prefer destinations that are more close to home?
Foxx: I don’t want to go to Mars. I prefer to visit the beaches and the mountains.

SXSW: President Obama’s term expires at the end of 2016. Have you thought about what you will do after your role as Secretary of Transportation ends?
Foxx: I think about a lot of things. I still have four years of NCAA eligibility and would love to go for the Heisman. Maybe I’ll work on my golf game and try to qualify for the U.S. Open. The truth is that I’m enjoying what I am doing and I’ll think about what the future holds when the time is right.

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2016 Interactive Featured Speaker: Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx. Photo courtesy of speaker.