Steering innovation towards the common good – TechCrunch

Thousands of years ago, an unnamed innovator created humanity’s most famous early invention: the wheel. Since then, the story of transportation has been a story of human creativity, innovation and technology. From e-scooters to spacecraft, technology makes up most human travel, whether it’s a historic spaceflight or a day trip through the city.

At the US Department of Transportation, my colleagues and I think daily about how transportation technologies are evolving, and we use our policy tools to support these innovations and ensure that they provide comfort, safety, and economic opportunity for the American people.

At any time in history, and certainly in our time, innovation is shaping and reshaping how people and goods get to where they need to be. But in recent years, “innovation” has become such a buzzword that it risks losing its meaning — and policymakers risk losing our focus as we struggle with the rapidly evolving and changing world of transportation technology.

As policy makers, we must give priority. We need to evaluate important innovations that will develop on their own, and that will require federal support for basic research. We should think about when technology should be given as much space as possible for experimental development, and when it raises concerns that require regulation to keep people safe.

The current decade is full of challenges and opportunities from developments in transportation technology. We are seeing the rise of electric and self-driving vehicles, the widespread adoption of recreational and commercial drones, a renewed interest in cybersecurity vulnerabilities in our infrastructure, the increasingly routine commercial travel into space and, perhaps most urgently, the high-stakes race to dramatically reduce the impact on our climate before it’s too late.

Amid these changes, the role of public policy is not always clear, but it is always significant. To enrich our work, today our department is developing a set of six guiding principles for our work on innovation in transportation.

Innovation is not an end in itself, but an opportunity for improvement. Our innovative efforts must serve our most important public policy goals, such as creating economic opportunity, promoting equitable access to transportation, and helping tackle the climate crisis.

Innovation must be shaped in ways that help America win the twenty-first century, through transportation systems and infrastructure that make societies more competitive, adaptive, and resilient.

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

A good innovation strategy allows for experimentation and learning from setbacks, as they are indispensable parts of the scientific method upon which all inventions and discoveries are based.

Our approach to innovation must focus on opportunities for collaboration, recognizing the distinct but relevant roles of the public, private and academic sectors.

Finally, our policies must be flexible and adapt to changing technology, because we cannot prepare for an evolving future with a policy that only makes sense under current or past conditions.

These principles will help us ensure that the enormous potential for transportation innovation in the United States benefits our nation and its people. For some, “government” and “innovation” are not naturally cognate words. But in fact, the public sector has always played a vital role in unleashing the creative potential of the American people.

Take the smartphone for example, the invention that changed the way we live in just a few years. Smartphones can be the result of inventions and marketing from the private sector – the natural role of private companies, not government departments. But the technologies that smartphones rely on — such as microprocessors, lithium batteries, touch screens, GPS, and the Internet itself — have all been backed or invented by government researchers.

Some of our biggest tech companies — including Google, Apple, and Tesla — benefited from government subsidies, loan guarantees, or other public support early in their growth.

And although the government is far from the source of all inventions, it has a responsibility to help ensure that all inventions are safe and workable for the public.

The government didn’t invent planes, trains, or cars, but it did build airports, lay tracks, and build highways. It enacted laws requiring seat belts and airbags, and created an air traffic control system so that people could travel safely.

As Minister of Transportation, I have been honored to see the latest frontiers in transportation innovation in our country.

In Georgia last year, I saw the country’s first-ever solar road, which delivers clean power to nearby electric vehicle (EV) chargers. In Oregon, I tested one of the electric buses that cities across the country are adopting as cleaner, quieter alternatives to older diesel vehicles. And in North Carolina, I visited an advanced research lab working on a very important, albeit unattractive, topic: the future of pavement, including more durable asphalt and even materials that can recycle carbon dioxide.

American companies and scientists work every day to push the boundaries of what is possible in transportation. Our department works every day to support basic research and maintain protective barriers that ensure these technologies unfold in safe, fair, and clean ways. In the years ahead, these basic principles will guide this work — and thanks to President Biden’s historic Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, we have new resources to support these efforts.

These investments will help more Americans adopt electric cars and save money on fuel. They will help more children ride the bus to school without exposure to toxic fumes. And they will put more people to work to create the infrastructure for the future.

When it comes to innovation in transportation, perhaps the most difficult thing to predict is the timing of how and when these developments will affect our daily lives. Less than 60 years have passed between the first flight of Kitty Hawk and the first American manned space flight. Less than 10 years after the first smartphones appeared on the market, ride-sharing was outpacing the use of taxis in many American cities. Electric cars were in commercial production in 1902 at the Studebaker factories in my hometown of South Bend, Indiana – just for everyone but disappearing for most of the 20th century, then re-emerging as a dominant force in the 21st century.

It is not the job of policymakers to guess or dictate how and when these developments will unfold. But our role in supporting, promoting, and protecting the work of transportation innovations is vital, and comes at a very important time in the story of American transportation. The next decade will bring countless transformative changes in how people and goods move around the country and the world. The Department of Transportation will be here to help support these innovations and make sure they benefit all of us.

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