SXSW 2022: Transportation Sec Buttigieg sees ‘enormous’ safety potential of self-driving vehicles

He also shares his views on EVs and the hyperloop

Deborah Yao

March 16, 2022

3 Min Read

He also shares his views on EVs and the hyperloop

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg sees self-driving vehicles as ushering in higher levels of safety.

“The safety potential for autonomous vehicles is enormous” given the less than stellar accident track record of human drivers, he said in a personal appearance at the SXSW 2022 conference in Austin, Texas.

While autonomous vehicles have been touted for years as always on the horizon of hitting the streets, there are real advancements being made.

Buttigieg pointed to the widespread use of level 2 automation in many vehicles today and said levels 3 and 4 are coming. Autonomous vehicles (AV) have six levels of automation ranging from zero (none) to five (fully self-driving). Level 2 includes such things as highway driving assist, for example, while levels 3 and 4 require even less human involvement.

However, government regulations still lag behind innovation. “The policy frameworks have not fully caught up with the tech,” Buttigieg said. The reason is because the government has to make sure certain safeguards are first in place, such as those relating to safety and cybersecurity.

Meanwhile, “it’s OK to allow that experimentation to flourish until and unless we start to see an escalation in some of the safety” concerns, he said. One way to make AVs safer is when the road and vehicles are talking to each other.

Government also has to wrestle with new regulatory issues. For example, today the federal government regulates vehicles and states regulate drivers.

“What will you do if the car is the driver?” he posited.

Electric vehicles (EVs)

When it comes to electric vehicles, Buttigieg said the recently announced $5 billion federal funding for states to build out a network of 500,000 EV chargers along the interstate highway system should give adoption a boost.

The goal is to make EV charging stations as ubiquitous as gas stations, he said.

Also, EVs have to be affordable to most people and accessible to folks who live in apartments, making sure they have a place to charge their vehicles, Buttigieg added.

Asked whether manufacturing of EV batteries will offset the sustainability benefits of these vehicles, Buttigieg said overall EVs are still better for the environment.

While utility plants must generate electricity to power EVs – using coal or natural gas, for example – they can do it more efficiently and will be better for the environment than someone pumping gas into a combustion-engine vehicle. Moreover, utilities are increasingly using renewable energy to generate power, Buttigieg said.

Hyperloop tunnel

Asked about the viability of having a network of hyperloop tunnels to enable public transportation, Buttigieg said there needs to be more development to make it feasible.

Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is building underground tunnels between cities for ultra-high-speed public transport, calling it the hyperloop. His Boring Company envisions autonomous electric pods traveling at more than 600 miles per hour such that that a trip between New York and Washington, D.C. would take less than 30 minutes. By car, the same trip would take more than four hours.

Buttigieg said Musk is proving there is a “much more efficient” way of building a tunnel compared to how subway tunneling is done today.

However, to make the hyperloop work on a larger scale other problems have to be solved. “Can they do a bigger tunnel?” he asked. “Can you do it in a way to support an integrated network” instead of just going from point A to point B?

Can the hyperloop system be constructed to meet accessibility needs of passengers, provide safety outlets in case of fires and other issues and ensure it is a “viable, widespread network?” Buttigieg said.

“That would be on the pathway for that discovery to be part of the mainstream,” he added.

About the Authors

Deborah Yao

Editor, AI Business

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