AUSTIN, Texas — Flying taxis, hyperloops and autonomous vehicles aren't yet part of everyday transportation.
But they're close enough to reality that the U.S. Department of Transportation is stepping up efforts to prepare for their arrival.
Concerned about the readiness of the department to handle transportation's next era, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao outlined steps this week at the SXSW arts and technology festival that will better clarify the regulatory thicket for industry innovators. That includes the creation of a high-ranking internal council that can respond to technologies -- such as automation -- that cut across transportation modes.
In her remarks, Chao described the limitations of a department that has built itself around modal silos since it was established by an act of Congress in 1966. Today, the department oversees 11 administrations, each with its own jurisdictions. This can complicate matters, especially for newcomers.
"When they come to the department for permits and funding, they don't know which bureaucracy to deal with," Chao said Tuesday. "In some cases, neither does the department."
She singled out hyperloop -- a project that would move passengers and freight in pods through partial-vacuum tubes at high speeds -- as one technology hamstrung by the department's setup, with a fixed tubes potentially the purview of the Federal Railroad Administration, the air-pressure component potentially regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, tunnels falling under the purview of the Federal Highway Administration and portions involving trucking or shipping overseen by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
Within the Transportation Department, the new Non-Traditional and Emerging Transportation Technology Council will be tasked with identifying and resolving problems, as well as being a "one-stop shop" point of contact between regulators and companies seeking guidance.
The creation of an automated vehicle policy in 2016 marked the department's first significant evolution toward new technologies, and those who follow the department's actions believe the Non-Traditional and Emerging Transportation Technology Council marks another important milepost.
"By the end of the 21st century, transportation and infrastructure won't look like they did at the end of the 20th century, and it is part of the responsibility of the DOT to continue that arc," said Shailen Bhatt, CEO of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, a Washington trade organization that promotes research in transportation technology.
The Non-Traditional and Emerging Transportation Technology Council held its first meeting last week, according to the Transportation Department, at which it first examined tunneling technologies and the approaches that various states are taking to regulate companies such as the Boring Co., one of Elon Musk's projects that involves an r&d tunnel in Hawthorne, Calif. The council will likely later explore automated-vehicle technology, drones, air taxis and hyperloop, according to the department, and how they're increasingly intertwined.
"Transportation isn't happening in a vacuum -- except hyperloop" said Greg Rogers, director of government affairs and mobility innovation at Securing America's Future Energy, a nonprofit that advocates on transportation policy. "Anthony Foxx was talking about this in the previous administration, and now Secretary Chao has continued the legacy of looking at multimodal connections."
For the Transportation Department, the matter has become more urgent as automated-vehicle companies eye deployments in the near term, and hyperloop and tunneling companies form firmer blueprints with cities across the country.
"These questions are not theoretical," Chao said. "Ten, five years ago, maybe they were. No longer. People are asking for answers, and the department needs a process to figure all this out. Ad hoc is not going to cut it, and it's going to impede progress."
In some cases, some corners might argue it already has. Though it doesn't cross modes, General Motors filed a request in January 2018 for an exemption for Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards that require steering wheels and brake pedals in motor vehicles. It wasn't until Friday that a peep was heard from the Transportation Department, which posted a request for comment on the petition.
In the future, the Non-Traditional and Emerging Transportation Technology Council could potentially provide a prompt response.
"What we're seeing is encouraging, not only in terms of cross-modal issues, but this council can elevate the profile of obstacles of key technologies," said Amitai Bin-Nun, vice president of autonomous vehicles and mobility innovation at Securing America's Future Energy.
Further, he said the council can ensure that administrations within the Transportation Department work more closely together, especially research labs conducting regulatory studies. "In general, we should think about how to more tightly couple the r&d and regulation," he said.
Such collaboration will only become more important going forward.
"Understanding what assets the DOT has in different places makes a lot of sense," Bhatt said. "Who knows, maybe in a couple of years they'll formalize it with a federal mobility administration or something that more fully reflects where we're going to go."