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Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting Washington, DC

Remarks Prepared for Delivery by
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao
Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting
Washington, DC
Monday, January 14, 2019

Thank you, Neil, for that warm welcome.

We are pleased to be here today, to update you on the Department’s innovation agenda, and share some exciting news about drones, autonomous vehicles and commercial space.

There is no doubt that this is one of the most exciting eras in transportation history.  New technologies are being developed that have the potential to save lives, revolutionize travel and commerce, and provide new mobility options for underserved communities.

Some of these technologies are still in the early phases of development.  Fully autonomous or self-driving vehicles, for example, exist primarily in limited and controlled circumstances. They are not yet available in the marketplace.  Drones, however, are well on their way to mainstream deployment.  They are widely used by hobbyists, by first responders, in rescue and recovery efforts, and to inspect infrastructure.  In fact, as of December 14, 2018 there were nearly 1.3 million registered drones in this country, and more than 116,000 registered drone operators.  And commercial space, which was once the realm of science fiction, is now a reality.  Just five years ago, the U.S. lagged behind Russia, Europe and China in commercial space launches.  Beginning in 2017, however, the United States became Number One in commercial space launches, and maintained that lead in 2018. 

In this Administration, the Department’s approach to new transportation technologies is performance-based, rather than highly prescriptive. We are not in the business of picking technology winners and losers.  Our philosophy is to encourage the widest possible development of safe new transportation technologies, so consumers and communities can choose the mix of options that suits them best. 

To implement this philosophy, today we’d like to share with you a sneak preview of three new Department initiatives to encourage the safe testing and deployment of drones.  This will help communities reap the considerable economic benefits of this growing industry, and help our country remain a global technology leader.

First, at long last, the Department is ready to issue for comment a proposed new rule that would allow drones to fly overnight and over people without waivers, if certain conditions are met.

As you know, current FAA regulations do not permit small drones to fly at night without a waiver.  The proposed rule allows drones to fly at night without a waiver, if the operator has received appropriate training, completed approved testing, and if the drone is equipped with anti-collision lighting.  

In addition, current FAA regulations prohibit drone flights over people.  The proposed rule would allow drones to make routine flights over people without a waiver or an exemption under certain conditions.  These conditions depend upon the level of risk to people on the ground, and are spelled out clearly in the proposal.     

This proposal will be published in the Federal Register as soon as possible.  Your feedback is welcome—the comment period will remain open for 60 days after publication.  In the meantime, you can find the text at www.faa.gov.

Let us note that the Department is keenly aware that there are legitimate public concerns about drones, concerning safety, security and privacy.  Recent events overseas have underscored concerns about the potential for drones to disrupt aviation and the national airspace.  So along with this new proposed rule, the Department is finishing up two other proposals to address drone safety and national security.

The second proposal is the UAS Safe and Secure ANPRM.  This new proposal identifies major drone safety and security issues that may pose a threat to other aircraft, to people on the ground or to national security. It solicits for consideration recommendations to reduce these risks as drones are integrated into our national airspace. Again, it will be published in the Federal Register as soon as possible.  Comments and recommendations are most welcome, and the proposal will remain open for comment for 60 days after publication in the Register.  In the meantime, the text of the proposal can be found at www.faa.gov.

Today’s third announcement is the selection of commercial service entities that will develop technology to manage the airspace for the drone pilot projects announced in 2018. As you may recall, the Department selected 10 pilot projects from around the country to test the safe operation of drones in a variety of conditions currently prohibited by law.  Today we are announcing three contracts that have been awarded to commercial service entities to develop technology to provide flight planning, communications, separation and weather services for these drones, which will operate under 400 feet. This unmanned aircraft traffic management system will be separate from, but complementary to, the traditional FAA air traffic management system.  It will create a shared information network, and gather data that can be used for future rulemakings. You can also find out more at www.faa.gov.

Together, these three initiatives will be a major step forward in enabling the safe development, testing and deployment of drones in our country. 

As we prepare for these exciting new developments in aviation, the Department is updating its approach to two other key technologies: autonomous vehicles and commercial space.

The Department’s approach to regulating autonomous, or self-driving, vehicles stresses collaboration and cooperation.  In fact, the Department’s two guiding documents—Automated Driving Systems 2.0 and the updated Automated Vehicles 3.0—were developed through stakeholder engagement.  We are pleased to note that 9 manufacturers have released their Voluntary Safety Self-Assessments, which are linked to the Department’s website for the public to read.   The Department applauds this transparency and encourages others to do the same. 

The potential of this technology to increase safety is especially noteworthy, because more than 37,000 lives were lost on our roads and highways in 2017 alone.  Yet the promise of automated vehicles will never be realized if the public does not have confidence in the safety, security and privacy of their technology.  

So manufacturers and Silicon Valley must step up, and help educate consumers about these new technologies. The public may not understand that automated vehicles have to meet the same safety requirements as vehicles driven by a person. In fact, there already is a Federal safety framework for automated vehicles. Unlike aircraft, automobile manufacturers do not have to get pre-approval from the government for every new part, as long as they meet current safety requirements.  So spending on innovation is strong—in the billions.  With these rapid developments, however, it is even more important that automated vehicle manufacturers put safety first and embrace transparency, which will build consumer trust.

Finally, let’s touch on another exciting area of innovation: commercial space.  Here again, an update of the Department’s regulatory approach was long overdue. 

As directed by the Vice President’s Space Council, the Department is on track to publish a complete overhaul of its regulations regarding commercial space launches by February of this year. Again, this rulemaking replaces prescriptive requirements with performance-based criteria.  Among other things, it will:

  • consolidate and revise all launch and reentry licensing activity into a single regulation; 
  • streamline the process, while protecting public safety and national security;
  • enable flexible timeframes, redefine when launch begins, and allow the space industry to seek a license to launch from multiple sites. 

The goal is to simplify licensing of launch and reentry activity, enable novel operations, and increase savings to make our country’s commercial space industry even more competitive.

As these proposals demonstrate, we are facing a new world in which technology is not easily siloed. Autonomous technology, for example, has applications across many modes of transportation. So the Department is preparing for the future by adjusting the way we work to reflect this new reality.  We’ll have an exciting announcement about this soon—so stay tuned!   In everything we do, however, safety will always remain Number One.

Let us close by noting that innovation is a powerful driver that creates new industries, new jobs and changes society in ways its creators never imagined. We look forward to continuing to work with you, and all stakeholders, to advance safety, mobility, economic growth and to ensure that our country remains a global leader in transportation innovation.

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Updated: Monday, January 14, 2019
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