Secretary Buttigieg talks road safety, self-driving cars, EVs, and unruly airline passengers

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss plans to make American roads safer, EV adoption goals, and the federal 'no-fly' list.

Video Transcript

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AKIKO FUJITA: The Department of Transportation is looking to address an alarming rise in deaths on roads across the country. Traffic-related deaths soared to a 13-year high in 2020 despite stay at home orders. And that number climbed even higher last year. That's prompted the department to roll out a nationwide safety strategy to try and curb those accidents.

Let's bring in Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg who's joining us this morning alongside Yahoo Finance's Brian Sozzi. And Mr. Secretary, it's good to talk to you today. It's a pretty sobering number when you think about 3,000 deaths a month that are reported on the country's roads. Let's start with that problem. What do you attribute the uptick in those numbers to?

PETE BUTIGIEG: Well, you would have thought with fewer people driving during the pandemic, there would be fewer crashes and fewer fatalities. Instead, the opposite happened. No, there are a lot of different factors going into that. One that appears to be a factor is speed. Speed is very often one of the reasons why a crash happens or one of the reasons why a crash is fatal.

And with less congested roadways, there were actually people more likely to drive at unsafe and illegal speeds. And, of course, there are consequences to that. But we also have to look at the bigger picture. Not only are we troubled by the fact that there's been a recent uptick, but just the fundamental number of traffic fatalities in our country is too high. And we've all grown up with it. So we're used to it.

But the truth is it's not standard. It's not inevitable. It's not normal for something like 40,000 people every year to die on our roadways. If you think about it for a second, we would never tolerate that many people dying in airplane crashes. We would never tolerate that many people dying in transit or train or ferry accidents. And yet, we just think of it as part of the cost of doing business in America.

Now, if you look around the world and even if you look around our country, some places are much better than others at preventing roadway deaths, which is one of the reasons we know that this crisis is preventable. So my department's released a national roadway safety strategy pointing to the strategies that are proven to make a difference to have safer roads, safer vehicles, safer drivers and passengers, safer speeds, and a better standard of care when there is a crash in terms of emergency services so that more people are able to survive.

AKIKO FUJITA: And when you think about that plan that you've laid out, it's a pretty ambitious one when you consider you're trying to get from 3,000 deaths a month to ultimately zero in the long term. There's a long list of proposals you've put out. But I wonder how technology's likely to play a role in all that.

When you think of self-driving cars, the initial argument has been that, you know, look, if you've got autonomous driving, that's going to reduce the number of accidents too. And yet, here we are in 2022 still talking about accidents stemming from that.

PETE BUTIGIEG: Yeah, I think there's a very compelling vision for the long run about these technologies and forms of autonomous driving being safer. After all, as you can tell by the numbers you and I just talked about, human drivers don't have a very good track record when it comes to safety.

The question is, how do we get from here to there in a safe way? And right now with a lot of wonderful technologies emerging, we're also in a bit of a danger zone because people see these partial automation technologies and sometimes lean on them too much. So it's very important for every driver to remember that no matter how high tech your vehicle, any vehicle that you can buy today requires a driver to be behind the wheel and paying attention.

These lane assist technologies, the forms of cruise control that we've got, automatic emergency braking, these are great. But they are driver assistance technologies. They are not driver replacement technologies. And we've got to make sure that we're very clear about that.

Now, as we look to the future, taking things like that automatic emergency braking and looking at whether that can be less of a bell and whistle an expensive feature and more something that's just standard on cars. I think that's a direction we can move in that will help to save lives not just in vehicles, but for pedestrians too.

BRIAN SOZZI: Mr. Secretary, Tesla said recently, their full self-driving technology will be available this year. Now, how concerned are you that big tech is moving aggressively with technology like this when our infrastructure isn't set up to support it?

PETE BUTIGIEG: Yeah, again, it's very important for people to understand that that any commercially available technology right now no matter what the brand name is, no matter what people are calling about it requires that you as a driver be paying attention. And, you know, you've got to read the fine print on some of these things.

Now, again, there's a lot of promise in these technologies for the long run. But we are reaching a point where the policies haven't always kept up with the technologies. I mean, so many of our regulations to keep cars safe are based on how cars always used to be. We need to make sure that they're based on how cars are going to be.

It makes no sense to continue to focus on a regulation that says exactly where a steering wheel or a mirror needs to go in a car that doesn't even have a driver in the future. And these are exactly the issues that my department is working with as we look to the future even as we try to address an issue, a crisis really on our roads today, which is, again, yes, it has to do with cars. It has to do with drivers. It also has to do with roads. It matters how you design a road. How you design an intersection. How you design an interchange. And safer designs will save lives.

BRIAN SOZZI: What I find so interesting, Mr. Secretary, is that the big automakers are so focused on making the best new cool-looking navigation screen or the best cool new plug-in electric vehicle. But there are technologies out there-- some of which you highlight in your report-- like, alcohol detection system for the ignition and eye-tracking technology. Now, do you think these things should be mandated standard equipment inside of automobiles?

PETE BUTIGIEG: So we are going to be evaluating how these safety technologies could become standard because this is part of how you also address some equity issues here. If having a car that's going to protect your safety, your life, your children is something that's only available as an expensive luxury item, then that raises some deep concerns about who is protected.

We have taken steps as a country over the years-- seatbelts to airbags, various things not only to have things like the five-star ratings that my department puts out to help people understand performance, but also just basic fundamental standards that we say if you want to drive a car in this country, this is part of what goes into that car so that you know you are safe. And the answer is evolving as the technology is evolving. That's a good thing. We just got to make sure that we're keeping up.

Now, also, remember, technology cuts both ways. These safety technologies have enormous promise. But other technologies-- smartphone technologies, some of the things that can go onto screens-- run the risk of increasing distracted driving, which or unfortunately, it's taken its place right alongside impaired driving and drunk driving as a source of crashes and injuries.

AKIKO FUJITA: Mr. Secretary, let's talk about where things stand with the administration's climate agenda, as we see Build Back Better hit a bit of a wall here without support from Senator Manchin. The president has said he wants half of the cars sold in the US to be EVs by 2030. He's also laid out a goal of 500,000 charging stations by the end of this decade. Can you get to those goals without the incentives in place from Build Back Better?

PETE BUTIGIEG: I think we can make enormous progress with the tools that we already have. Of course, we believe in the incentives in Build Back Better. We think they'll make a big difference in making electric vehicles more affordable.

And some of the people who stand the most to gain from adopting electric vehicles-- rural drivers, low-income drivers who could really use that gas money that you save because it's cheaper to fill up on electric than on gas and diesel-- you know, it would go a long way to buy down the sticker price for those cars and pickups which is what those incentives would do. So we still believe in them. But I will say with what we already have, the resources to create a national charging network of half a million chargers so that you never have to wonder if you're going to be able to get charged where you need to go.

The partnerships that we have and the conversations we're having with industry and the automakers already working very quickly and effectively in this direction give me a very great degree of confidence that we're going to achieve this goal. We're going to try to beat it as a federal government making sure that just when we buy our own cars, you know, if you just think about the number of light duty vehicles that the federal government buys, we can lead by example. We're working to do that. And that's another goal the president set that we're working hard to make sure that we meet or beat.

BRIAN SOZZI: From cars to airplanes, Mr. Secretary, a Delta CEO is looking to create a no fly list for unruly passengers. Is that something you support?

PETE BUTIGIEG: Well, certainly, we support airlines taking steps to protect their passengers, their crews. And a number of airlines, including Delta, have done that. They've said that if you are behaving in a way that's unruly, dangerous, you can't fly on our airline anymore. It gets a little more complex when there are proposals for the government to do that. But right now, what we're seeing is that companies are completely within their rights to take action to keep people safe.

I will also say that the FAA is continuing to vigorously enforce and encourage criminal referrals where appropriate for this kind of behavior. I mean, in 2022, we should not even have to say that when you're on an airplane, you need to behave in a way that is safe and appropriate. But we still have far, far too many cases-- far, far too many examples of flight crews being mistreated or even other passengers being harmed by unruly passengers.

It's got to stop, and we're going to continue doing everything that we can through enforcement and through just getting the message out there that we stand with flight crews and we stand with those who are up there, by the way, as the announcement always goes when you're putting your belt on primarily for your safety. They deserve that respect. And everybody deserves to get to where they're going without incident.

AKIKO FUJITA: But just to clarify the point, it sounds like you think a no fly list is really within the purview of the airlines, the private companies, not necessarily for the government to create.

PETE BUTIGIEG: Well, look, I think we need to continue to look at anything that will help keep our skies safe. What I'll say is that many of the airlines have already taken that step privately. And we should continue to look at what we can do at a policy level knowing that that there's a lot of complexity when you try to do that in a way that cuts across airlines and is developed by the government.

AKIKO FUJITA: Secretary Buttigieg, it's good to have you back on the show today-- really appreciate the time. And our thanks to Brian Sozzi, as well, for joining in on the conversation.