What Buttigieg’s Nomination to Transportation Sec. Means for Cars

  • President-elect Joe Biden nominated former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg to be the Secretary of Transportation.
  • Buttigieg will oversee the Federal Highway Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, two positions which will allow him to have big impacts on the auto industry.
  • Buttigieg could oversee the building of electric-vehicle charging stations as well as the regulation of autonomous and advanced driver-assist technologies.

    Earlier this week, President-elect Joe Biden nominated Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, to be the Secretary of Transportation. This will be the most prominent public service position Mayor Pete is yet to hold and in this role he will be able to shape and influence the auto industry for years to come.

    The Department of Transportation (DOT) is headed by the transportation secretary, and this department oversees administrations related to aviation, infrastructure, and transportation. The two that have the most impact on the auto industry are the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). From this position, Buttigieg is expected to take on initiatives such as expanding the electric-vehicle charging network, regulating autonomous and advanced driver assist technologies, setting vehicle emissions rules, and investing in infrastructure.

    “Jobs, infrastructure, equity, and climate all come together at the DOT, the site of some of our most ambitious plans to build back better,” President-elect Joe Biden said in a statement. “I trust Mayor Pete to lead this work with focus, decency, and a bold vision — he will bring people together to get big things done.”

    Buttigieg will come into the position with his own transportation plans, some of which were published when he himself was running for president. Although they give some direction as to what he will pursue as transportation secretary, his original ideas will be “modulated” by the plans of Biden and whichever party controls the Senate, Carla Bailo, the president and CEO of the Center for Automotive Research, told C/D.

    “To have someone from the Midwest in that position is good,” particularly since it’s where the automotive industry is located, Bailo said. “When we talk about the problems that mobility and infrastructure are facing throughout the U.S., thinking of alternative solutions that are novel and unique and being open to hearing about them is really important,” and that is something that Buttigieg has demonstrated in the past, Bailo said.

    One place where Buttigieg’s transportation plans intersected those of Biden was the aim to add more electric vehicle charging stations around the country; Biden’s plans explicitly state that he aims to build 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations. Such an investment would be a win for the auto industry which has been investing billions of dollars in electric vehicles and could encourage more EV sales.

    The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, a trade group which represents much of the industry, welcomed the nomination of Buttigieg in a statement. “As the technologies that will define the future of personal mobility rapidly evolve, effective collaboration and engagement among government, industry, and stakeholder partners will be vital to continuing U.S. leadership, job creation and competitiveness in the auto sector.”

    One of the future technologies where Buttigieg’s impact is expected is in the regulation of autonomous as well as advanced driver-assist technologies, which could ultimately impact the technology which reaches consumers. Currently, there is little federal regulation of these systems, including testing and integration into consumer vehicles. This lack of regulation has been repeatedly noted by the Insurance Institute for High Safety (IIHS).

    “I think we will begin to see (federal regulation), because it’s really a must,” Bailo said. That starts with regulating the ADAS systems currently seen on cars but will extend to autonomous systems. “You can’t change the brain of a car when it crosses a state line or goes out a city area and into another city area. You really need to have some standards that are nationwide, and this is where NHTSA needs to step up.”

    Buttigieg could also take on how the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) is funded, as the HTF has run at a deficit for a number of years now. The HTF, which funds federally built highways and mass transit, collects a vast majority of its revenue through gas taxes. Yet, due to the gas tax not being raised since 1993 and vehicles becoming more fuel efficient, funding the HTF has become an increasingly larger issue.

    In his campaign platform, Buttigieg suggested switching to a vehicle miles traveled model which would tax road users based on how many miles they have driven. This idea is one that isn’t explicitly shared with Biden and would be a radical departure from the status quo, but it could lead to the HTF being fully funded and therefore able to invest appropriately in infrastructure. Bailo said that it isn’t likely this would take a significant toll on the auto industry.

    U.S. Senator Gary Peters of Michigan welcomed Buttigieg’s nomination in a statement, saying “As a Midwest Mayor, Pete Buttigieg has a unique understanding of what it takes to revitalize our infrastructure, create local jobs, and build on partnerships that have been a proven success. This is a historic nomination, and – as a fellow former officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve – I look forward to discussing more with Secretary-designate Buttigieg on how to keep the American auto industry as the global leader on mobility.”

    Nonetheless, Buttigieg’s nomination was not appreciated by all. Black community leaders from South Bend told Politico while Buttigieg was under consideration for the position that he would be an inadequate choice for communities of color given his poor record with the Black community in South Bend.

    Buttigieg still has to be approved by the Senate before he can assume this role.

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