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Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx (left) in discussion with interviewer Jeff Gilbert at SAE's WCX17 conference in Detroit (image: Lindsay Brooke).

WCX17: Former Transportation Secretary warns against potential CAFE pullback

Anthony Foxx, former U.S. Secretary of Transportation, told an audience at the SAE WCX17 conference that regressing from the current Corporate Average Fuel Economy regulations, adopted by the Obama Administration in 2012, would be a mistake for the auto industry.

The administration of President Trump has indicated it is willing to entertain a rollback of the Environmental Protection Agency standards that call for automakers to achieve a fleet-wide fuel efficiency of 54.5 mpg (4.3L/100 km) by 2025. Through recent lobbying initiatives, many automakers in turn have called for a review of the regulations.

But “backing away from some of the future fuel-efficiency standards is a setback,” Foxx asserted, saying that he hopes a pending federal review of the standards will result in continuing with the aggressive goal, “not pulling back.” Foxx said he doesn’t believe the industry now has become opposed to the standards, but does want the EPA to review their relevancy in light of consumer vehicle preferences and continuing low fuel prices.

Automated-driving believer

Meanwhile, Foxx told the WCX17 audience that auto industry and consumer captivation with the prospect of automated driving will speed adoption. Unlike some auto-industry and electronics-sector sources that recently have cautioned widespread penetration of high-level autonomous capability may yet be many years in the future, Foxx sees a more aggressive timeline.

“I think you’re going to see anything from (SAE) Level 2 to Level 4 over the next two or three years,” Foxx said, adding that consumer choice will play a prime factor in how fast full autonomy will be adopted. He said he believes full Level 5 autonomy—almost certainly exclusive to fleets and other commercial applications at first—“is at least a few years away,” and added that it will be a long time before a large portion of the U.S. vehicle population is fully autonomous.

Asked when he believes the autonomous era will begin, he said, “I think we’re there.”

Foxx also said automated driving’s projected impact on the insurance industry has yet to be determined, but “the insurance industry has a tough road to go here,” saying that state law typically defines liability. One likely end game, he suggested, is that “autonomous vehicles are going to be a lot more like riding in an airplane—not so much about you and me (from a liability standpoint) as drivers.”

With drivers becoming less important to the overall transportation equation, notions of public transportation also will be adjusted to the new environment of autonomy, Foxx said.

“I do think there’s going to be some disruption in public transit—hopefully good disruption,” he said. He envisions advances such as autonomous busses and public transportation authorities or other entities potentially merging with ride-share companies. And aging citizens or city dwellers will gradually be able to realistically consider whether vehicle ownership is necessary.

“I’m not sure I’m buying another car,” he admits to a Detroit audience comprised largely of auto industry-related attendees.

Recall religion

Asked whether the auto industry has evolved past the recent cycle of massive product recalls—many safety-related—Foxx said, “I do think the industry got ‘scared straight.’ We’re dealing with peoples’ lives every day,” he added, saying that an evolution to automated driving means “there’s a higher burden on the industry. And I believe the industry’s up to it.”

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