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Most Creative People

The Future Of America's Roads: Smart Streets, Cars That Communicate

Population growth paired with a lack of "appetite for investment" in transportation systems means big challenges for Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. His solution? Creativity, cars that talk to each other, and a data innovation challenge.

[Image: Flickr user Sascha Kohlmann]

When Anthony Foxx was sworn in as the U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary last summer, he said he would draw on "every ounce of innovation and creativity" to make the country's vast transportation system not only safe and efficient but also modernized.

Anthony Foxx

Earlier this year, Foxx, one of our 2014 Most Creative People in Business, launched the Data Innovation Challenge, the DOT's most ambitious invitation to the tech community. He gave enterprising companies and developers access to the department's data—more 2,500 data sets on everything from highway conditions and financing to railroad accidents—and challenged them to "revolutionize America's transportation system" by creating new visualization tools and apps for consumers as well as officials. The winners will be announced later this year.

When we met at DOT headquarters, Foxx shared how he thinks about innovating at an organization as large (55,000 employees and a 2015 budget of $90.9 billion requested by President Obama) and complex as the DOT.

How do you prioritize where to focus your—and the department's—creativity?

I get asked the question, "When your tenure as secretary is over, what do you want people to say?"

Already? You've been in the job less than a year.

Yeah, people ask as soon as you get here: "What is it you want to get to get done?" If I had one word, it would be innovate. Take the system that has done so much good for this country for so long and bring it into the 21st century in a bold way. Our automotive systems. Our aviation systems. Our mariner systems. Our rail and transit systems. Our truck and motor coach systems. I want the folks who use these to understand that we are embracing the technology to make them safer and move more efficiently. I also think it'll be a major economic driver going forward.

How so? Because of the benefits of efficiency or a new expertise?

The more we get to that place faster than the next country, the more we're going to be able to grow the kind of jobs this country needs in the 21st century. When the airplane was invented, we built the system that the rest of the world now imitates. We regulated the air space and the systems that are required. We’re in a period now of such rapid change in all these modes of transportation that part of our job is to get there first. We are in a position to deploy the innovation and show the rest of the world how we do it. But also if we are more efficient at moving people and goods, that gives us a leg up in global competitiveness.

How did the data challenge come about?

You have to understand the largest challenges that an agency like the USDOT faces. They're around how we plan to incorporate massive population growth in our transportation systems when the appetite for investment has been challenged.

You're facing the same issues as a lot of companies: doing more with less.

Not every innovation in transportation is going to come from government or even a large enterprise. There are smart people out there with tools and skills to come up with great ideas. A lot of people in the technology space love the idea of a solving a problem. And who in America doesn't think we could have a better way to move around and better ways to reduce congestion, or at least think ahead as you travel? These could improve quality of life.

The DOT hasn’t shared its data like this before. How do you suddenly make the department more open?

It is a challenge, culturally. As innovative as this department is, and can be, the thought of putting a bunch of data out there is foreign. But that's exactly where the world is going. The president himself is very focused on putting out more of the public's own data. And we've seen what other agencies have done, finding ways to get their data out and allowing the market to dictate what kind of innovations could occur. Local transit agencies have developed apps to let you know when the next bus is coming, but there are so many more applications that can be done.

Where do you expect these new apps and tools will have the greatest impact?

We don't know. Part of being innovative in government is sometimes not trying to plot out the last chapter of the book, but to be open and see what comes back.

In February, the DOT's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced its support of car-to-car communication. Why focus there?

Some of the foundational elements of an intelligence transportation system are in place today. Some stoplights have a tracker underground that acknowledges the presence of a car to make the light turn green faster. Eventually, the road system will communicate with cars in many more robust ways, helping you avoid a collision, or if you're driving late at night, helping you avoid going outside your lane. And then vehicle-to-vehicle technologies will help prevent cars from hitting cars, or potentially, cars from hitting pedestrians.

How do you help the technology along?

Part of our job is to try to enable these emerging technologies to take root. We have a responsibility as an agency, by law, to set forward the parameters for safety in automobiles. What industry has been waiting on is for our agency to offer a kind of a road map. Once we put the enabling rule-making in place—we're going to work hard on this over the next three to four years—it will not take long before you start to see vehicles talking to each other in lots of ways.


In part 2 of the interview, Foxx explains his role in allowing smartphones, tablets, and e-readers during airplane takeoffs and landings—and what he's got planned next to improve air travel.