Steering innovation toward the public good

The wheel is the most famous invention of humankind. The story of transportation has been about creativity, innovation, and technology. Technology shapes most human journeys, from a historic spaceflight to a daily cross-town commute.

Every day, my colleagues and I think about how transportation technologies are evolving and how we can support them to deliver convenience, safety, and economic opportunity for the American people.

At any time in history, and certainly in ours, innovation shapes and changes how people and goods move to where they need to be. In recent years, innovation has become such a buzzword that it risks losing its meaning, and policymakers risk losing their focus as they contend with the constantly changing and rapidly developing world of transportation technology.

As policymakers, we have to prioritize. We need to assess which important innovations will develop on their own and which need federal support for basic research. When a technology should be given as much room as possible to experiment, and when it raises concerns that need regulation to keep people safe, we must consider that.

The current decade is full of challenges and opportunities. We are seeing the rise of electric and self-drive vehicles, the widespread adoption of recreational and commercial drones, renewed attention to cybersecurity vulnerabilities in our infrastructure, and the high-stakes race to dramatically reduce transportation's impact on our climate before it.

The role of public policy is important despite the fact that it is not obvious. Our department is establishing a set of six guiding principles for our work on innovation in transportation.

It is not an end in itself, but a chance to improve. Our most important public policy goals should be served by our innovation efforts, like helping to confront the climate crisis, and creating economic opportunity.

America should win the 21st century with transportation systems and infrastructure that make communities more competitive and resilient.

Our innovation strategy must support workers, knowing that our choices will help to define whether technological development meets its potential to create economic benefits for all.

The scientific method underpins all invention and discovery and a good innovation strategy allows for experimentation and learns from setbacks.

The public, private, and academic sectors should be recognized in our approach to innovation.

We can't prepare for an evolving future with policy that only makes sense under present or past conditions, so we should be flexible and adapt as technology changes.

The principles will help us to make sure that transportation innovation benefits our nation and its people. Government and innovation are not words that go together easily. The public sector has always played a vital role in helping the American people.

The invention of the smartphone changed the way we live in just a few years. Private-sector inventions and marketing could only be the cause of the phone. Government researchers supported or invented many of the technologies that are used in smartphones.

Some of the largest tech companies, including Apple, were supported early in their growth by the government.

The government has a responsibility to make sure that all inventions are safe and practical for the public.

Government did build airports, lay tracks, and construct highways, but it didn't invent planes, trains, or automobiles. It created an air traffic control system so that people could travel safely and enacted laws requiring seat belts and air bags.

I have been privileged to see the latest frontiers of transportation innovation as secretary of transportation.

I saw the nation's first-ever solar roadway in Georgia last year. In Oregon, I drove one of the electric buses that cities around the country are embracing as cleaner and quieter alternatives to diesel vehicles. In North Carolina, I visited an advanced research lab working on the future of pavement, including more durable asphalt and even materials that can recycle carbon dioxide.

American companies and scientists are pushing the boundaries of what is possible in transportation. Our department supports basic research and maintains the guardrails that ensure that the technologies unfold in ways that are safe, equitable, and clean. Thanks to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, we have new resources to support those efforts.

More Americans will adopt electric vehicles because of these investments. They will help children get to school by bus. More people will be put to work creating the infrastructure of the future.

When it comes to transportation innovation, it's hard to say when these developments will affect our lives. Between the first flight at Kitty Hawk and the first American spaceflight, less than 60 years have passed. After the first smartphones hit the market, ride-sharing overtook taxi use in many American cities. Electric vehicles were in commercial production at Studebaker factories in my hometown of South Bend, Indiana, in the early 20th century, but only to disappear for most of the 20th century.

It is not the job of policymakers to predict how and when these changes will happen. At an important time in the story of American transportation, our role in supporting, fostering, and safeguarding the work of transportation innovation is vital. The decade ahead will bring many changes to how people and goods move around the world. The Department of Transportation will be here to support those innovations and make sure they benefit us all.