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Buttigieg sets goals for electric, automated freight vehicles

Newly sworn-in Transportation Secretary Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the National Shooting Sports Foundation - Relief bill to become law; Cuomo in trouble The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - Senate begins marathon vote-a-rama before .9T COVID-19 relief passage The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Virus relief bill headed for weekend vote MORE is planning to embark on ambitious priorities for electric and automated freight fleet vehicles as part of the Biden administration’s overall goals for combating climate change. 

Buttigieg said at his recent confirmation hearing that American workers should be leading the way in producing autonomous vehicles, while stressing the need for public infrastructure to power electric vehicles with clean energy. In doing so, he fully embraced President BidenJoe BidenCNN: Bidens' dogs removed from the White House Federal judge rules 'QAnon shaman' too dangerous to be released from jail Pelosi says Capitol riot was one of the most difficult moments of her career MORE’s goal to have 500,000 electric charging stations across the country by 2030. 

Buttigieg’s plans for automated and electric commercial vehicles come on the heels of a report from his predecessor, former Transportation Secretary Elaine ChaoElaine ChaoPolitical land mines await Garland at DOJ Is nonpartisan effectiveness still possible? DOJ declined to take up Chao ethics probe MORE, who released a National Freight Strategic Plan in September that included supporting the development and adoption of automation and connectivity. 

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“There are significant technological and institutional barriers to the widespread adoption of highly automated trucks,” the plan said.

But proponents say that the costs to overcoming those barriers are outweighed by enhanced safety on the other end.

Freight shipments are expected to increase by 22.4 percent over the next 20 years, according to government estimates, and experts say the amount of human error in long-haul freight with automation will eventually lead to fewer injuries and deaths.  

Todd Benoff, co-founder of Alston & Bird’s connected and autonomous vehicles team, noted that more than 37,000 people die on U.S. roads every year and 94 percent of those accidents are caused by human error.

“While there is a lot of debate around how much safer automated vehicles will be, there are some facts that suggest the improvement will be dramatic. Speed is a major factor in fatal accidents,” he said. “Driver distraction is another factor — one that becomes worse every year as people find more and more reasons to pay attention to their phones instead of the road.” 

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The Biden administration’s agenda includes replacing the government’s fleet with U.S.-made electric vehicles. 

“The federal government also owns an enormous fleet of vehicles, which we’re going to replace with clean electric vehicles made right here in America, by American workers,” Biden said late last month. 

Transportation policy experts are optimistic that Buttigieg, 39, can help facilitate advancements in both electrification and automation. 

“The commitment of the administration towards electric vehicles, I think, will be a big boost not only to electric vehicles but to advancing autonomous vehicles. I think Secretary Buttigieg, being somewhat of a younger generation ... I think he’s the right person at the department to advance these ideas and this technology,” said Eric Tanenblatt, global chair of public policy and regulation and leader of Autonomous Vehicles practice at Dentons, an international law firm. 

The goal of replacing the federal fleet with electric vehicles is doable, experts said, while cautioning that the timeline is uncertain. 

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“Replacing some federal fleet vehicles with electric vehicles can happen immediately. Replacing all federal fleet vehicles with electric vehicles will take time,” said Jeremy Michalek, a professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University.

An eventual infrastructure package, which Biden wants with a $2 trillion price tag, will be crucial to accomplishing many of the administration’s goals. And while infrastructure is often a bipartisan issue, Democrats have encountered GOP resistance in Congress in recent years for including environmental policies in their proposals.

Tanenblatt said that getting to automation for commercial freight will be a two-step process that depends in large part on electric vehicles.

“The precursor to autonomy is electrification. The administration’s commitment to climate change and to electric vehicles — they’ve set some lofty goals. And if we invest in seeing the electric vehicle industry expand, I think that helps to push towards autonomous vehicles,” he said.

But accomplishing the first step carries with it significant hurdles.  

“Picking some subset of the fleet to electrify now, the technology’s there. It’s just a matter of doing it. However, when we talk about electrifying the entire fleet ... that’s an enormously more difficult challenge because while some applications are ready to electrify now, there are many others that have enormous hurdles to figure out before they would reasonably electrify,” Michalek said.

Experts also point out that while electric and automated vehicles could carry higher upfront costs, maintenance costs are likely to go down as availability increases. 

“Automated fleets have the potential to reduce cost, improve efficiency and increase flexibility, but they may also displace jobs,” Michalek said.