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White House, Tesla partnership ‘a great opportunity,’ Sec. Buttigieg says

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the buildout of Tesla’s new charging network, U.S. EV goals, the regulation of autonomous driving technology, and an update on what the Department of Transportation is doing about the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.

Video transcript

BRIAN SOZZI: The Biden administration is revving up its strategy for EV expansion, announcing that Tesla will open 3,500 new and existing charging stations to rival EV customers by late 2024. This is part of the president's longer term goal to build 500,000 EV charging stations by 2030. US Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg, joins us now. Always nice to see you, Mr Secretary. Lots to unpack here in this release. What's the biggest message the administration wants to get across to would-be EV owners?

PETE BUTTIGIEG: I think the biggest thing that people need to know is that we are now well on our way toward creating that charging network of 500,000 chargers across the country by the end of this decade that the president has envisioned. And we're not just urging that it happen. We're funding these chargers to make sure that they can get installed along highway networks and in communities. Importantly, we're also setting high standards on this.

We want to make sure that a charging experience is as interchangeable and predictable as filling up a car. That's one of the reasons why we set up these standards, saying, for example, that there has to be transparency about the prices, that it can't be a walled garden that requires you to be a member of a certain vendor, just in order to be able to use these things. So you've got to be able to use these chargers easily, interchangeably, and transparently.

And as we continue to work building them out, the other exciting thing is the job creation. High standards here about these things being assembled in America, having American-made components because we know good paying jobs that are associated not just with making these electric vehicles, but making the devices that are going to keep them charged

JULIE HYMAN: And you mentioned that it should be as easy to get your vehicle charged as it is to fill up gas right now. And I wonder just sort of the nitty gritty here. Are, for example, gasoline stations going to be converting or adding chargers? Is that part of the plan? What can people expect in terms of where they'll be able to find them, the timeline for rolling them out, et cetera?

PETE BUTTIGIEG: So I think we're going to see a lot of both and for the foreseeable future. But you do see some companies-- BP is a good example-- that are showing a lot of interest in integrating chargers into their network. We're also going to see chargers in places where gas stations never could have gone. I mean, in some way, I certainly continue to say it should be as easy as filling up a car.

But in some ways, it's got more in common with charging your phone than does putting gas in a car because many Americans will be able to charge at home and at work. That changes the logic of where the chargers need to go.

But one thing that doesn't change is you never want to go more than 50 miles without knowing that there's going to be a charger available, which is why that's just one of the standards that we are holding the states to, as we send out funding out their way and ask them to use it to create a statewide and ultimately interlocking nationwide network of chargers that wherever you go when you're headed out on a road trip, you know that you're going to have multiple opportunities to charge up when you need it.

BRAD SMITH: So this with Tesla, it just sounds like it's the first of more partnerships that could be on the way?

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Yeah, I think this is a great opportunity. Look, Tesla has already built a very impressive nationwide charging network. And it turns out that it is relatively straightforward to connect this up in a way that other cars can use. I don't mean to say it's easy. We're going to require work in retrofit, so it's really just about the connector versus the fundamental technology involved. They have a customized connector they call NACS. Most cars that you would buy if they're not Tesla use a standard called CCS, the Combined Charging System.

And we want to make sure that, again, same as you to check whether a gas station has a nozzle that's going to fit your car, you know if there's gas, you can go there and you can use it. We're trying to create that same kind of simplicity.

So really applaud Tesla for taking this step of being prepared to create these kind of connectors to bring a goal of 7,500 of their new and existing charging points up to the standard that would make them interchangeable and usable, both for those Tesla vehicles and for any other vehicle that would pull up and want to use. And when you do that, then that qualifies for federal funds because of course, we want to make sure taxpayer dollars are going to something that can be used by anybody, no matter what car you drive or what-- not requiring you to be loyal to one company or another.

JULIE HYMAN: This Tesla part of the agreement, though, does seem to represent sort of a detente between the administration and Elon Musk and Tesla. We saw the president tweeting at Elon Musk. He replied in a very civil fashion. Did you deal with Musk directly? How was that experience? And does this set the table for further cooperation?

PETE BUTTIGIEG: I think it can. The seeds for this were planted a long time ago. I was present in a meeting of leaders of different auto actors over a year ago. And he was there, and he mentioned a level of interest in creating this kind of interchangeability. We made clear we wanted to take him up on that. And the White House, our Department of the Department of Energy, and others have worked on this.

But look, my view is that with regard to Elon Musk and Tesla or any company, as an agency, we've got to call balls and strikes. We'll partner with a company when they're ready to work with us to do the right thing. We're also a regulator. And we have to hold companies accountable any time there's an issue with their meeting a standard. But of course, we want to have a normal, productive, healthy relationship with any player who can make a difference and a positive difference in moving us toward our goals.

And one of our most important goals as an administration, as a country, is to protect Americans from climate change. A huge part of that is electric vehicles. And you can't have a conversation about electric vehicles. That doesn't have something to say about Tesla, largest producer of EVs in the US. And the company really opened a lot of paths for the industry as a whole, even as you now see just about every kind of company, from startups to the most traditional names in American auto manufacturing, participating in this EV revolution.

BRIAN SOZZI: Mr. Secretary, I don't know if you saw this, but during the Super Bowl, there was this ad of Teslas running over mannequins and just, I think, continuing to highlight how unsafe this autonomous driving technology, in many respects, being led by a Tesla. I don't know if you saw that ad, but how far away is the administration away from putting clear guidelines in place to regulate some of this autonomous technology?

PETE BUTTIGIEG: So this is one thing I think is extremely important to understand. Any technology that you can go buy today, any car you can get from a dealership or as a private citizen, it might have all kinds of interesting driver assistance technologies. Those are not driver replacement technologies. So no car you can buy today that doesn't require you to be paying attention at the wheel. And we are a long way off from automated vehicles. You can just sit back, take a nap, or read the paper while it takes you from point A to point B.

So we do need to make sure, first of all, that everybody understands that, and that there's a level of rigor around these technologies that are introduced, that they are enhancing the safety of a driver who is paying attention. And the claims aren't being thrown around that that somehow means you don't have to have your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel.

There is enormous safety potential in the future of some of these automated driving technologies. But any technology that's on the market today is something that is designed to supplement, not replace, your attention as a safe driver. And I am very concerned about any scenario where any driver thinks otherwise.

JULIE HYMAN: Mr. Secretary, speaking of safety, I want to turn to the rail derailment, or I should say, the train derailment, excuse me, in East Palestine, Ohio. There was a meeting last night that was held in the town. And I just want to play a short clip of what we heard from some of the citizens there.

- We're trying to get information out to our citizens. Everybody's concerned. I'm concerned. But it's not Norfolk Southern here. It's the EPA, the people have been working with us, trying to get our citizens back into their homes safe.

JULIE HYMAN: I believe that was the mayor of the town. You can barely hear him because there are so many people at that meeting who were upset. Norfolk Southern representatives were supposed to be there. They pulled out at the last moment. And I know the EPA is investigating. I know it's early now. We don't know exactly what happened. But from your perspective, what can the transportation department do to make sure this kind of stuff doesn't happen?

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Well, the most urgent thing right now is to make sure that these residents get the information that they need. They're concerned, they are frightened, and with good reason. They had their lives upended through no fault of their own and now want to know if their homes, their neighborhoods, their schools are safe. Obviously, EPA, the administrator, has been doing great work on this on the ground today. A lot of this is a partnership between them and the state when it comes to things like testing the air, testing the water, testing the ground.

But there's a very important transportation safety side to this, too. Now the NTSB, National Transportation Safety Board, they are an independent body. And I respect their independence and their leadership of the investigation right now. But our department supports that process. Matter of fact, we had people on the ground within hours from our federal rail administration and our Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration to support that investigation.

I think big picture, we need to-- and we do stand ready-- to take the initiative and provide the fundings of their investigation, including not just a final product, but any finding that emerges along the way. And make sure that we're using that, both to create accountability, if there were any violations of the rules and to look at how the rules need to evolve. Look, rail safety is something that has evolved a lot over the years, but there's clearly more that needs to be done because while this horrible situation has gotten a particularly high amount of attention, there are roughly 1,000 cases a year of a train derailing.

Obviously, they have levels of severity, but where all of that points us to is a need to continue to raise the bar on rail safety. And that's especially true when it comes to rail that involves hazardous materials. Now this train was subject to certain enhanced requirements because of hazardous materials on board. But obviously, none of that prevented what happened in East Palestine. It's one of the reasons we're going to be paying very close attention to the findings that NTSB comes back with.

BRAD SMITH: And so based on those findings, based on the findings of what the EPA is ultimately able to conclude around this, too, where is the liability? Where do you believe that-- and what we already know about the hazardous materials, what is taking place, and the number of people impacted, I mean, the scope of this seems quite large when you think about the number of people who have been displaced from their homes, trying to figure out how long some of this will continue to have longer impacts on the environment that they live in as well. And what accountability do you hold to Norfolk Southern?

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Well, the EPA has already sent a letter notifying in a formal way, notifying Norfolk Southern of its responsibilities. Obviously, I can't get ahead of an investigation that is active and ongoing. But Norfolk Southern will have to answer to EPA for the environmental side and to our department if there were any violations of rules that were found that emerged in the NTSB process.

And I do think they really need to be on the rails, just playing a role in making sure these folks get the information that they need. People have been told, based on the air quality testing, that the air is safe. They're continuing to ask a lot of questions about the water, about the soil. Yet EPA'S doing good work on the ground. So the state leadership, I have spoken both to the governor of Ohio and the governor of Pennsylvania, understand their concerns and working on how we can be held in the long run. But the bottom line and the most urgent thing right now is to make sure that the residents are taken care of.

BRAD SMITH: Do you believe that this should result in or might result in a redrawing of routes, even, to make sure that you are mitigating risks of exposure if there are future incidents?

PETE BUTTIGIEG: So one thing that does come with these hazardous material trains is certain restrictions on what routes they can follow. And that is part of what we need to ensure we've taken a look at in this context. Basically, the question that needs to be asked here is, with all of the regulation, with all of the supplemental regulations that apply to a hazardous cargo like vinyl chloride, how is it that this happened anyway? And what can be done to make sure it doesn't happen?

BRAD SMITH: US Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg, thanks so much for taking the time here today and giving us some insight into the ongoing conversations you're having on one front and the EVs and another in a very huge incidents and accidents that many of us are monitoring here in the States as well. Thanks so much for the time.