Automated Technologies: DOT Should Take Steps to Ensure Its Workforce Has Skills Needed to Oversee Safety

GAO-21-197 Published: Dec 18, 2020. Publicly Released: Dec 18, 2020.
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Fast Facts

Automated technologies in planes, trains, and passenger vehicles can perform tasks without the need for human operators—like crash avoidance systems that automatically slow cars down to avoid a collision. The Department of Transportation needs a workforce with skills related to these technologies in order to ensure the technologies are safe to use.

The department has made some progress hiring people with these skills but hasn't evaluated its recruitment strategies. Officials also haven't fully assessed whether current staff in key areas like cybersecurity have the skills they need.

Our recommendations address these issues.

Driver without his hands on the wheel

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Highlights

What GAO Found

Stakeholders GAO interviewed said that federal oversight of automated technologies—such as those that control a function or task of a plane, train, or vehicle without human intervention—requires regulatory expertise as well as engineering, data analysis, and cybersecurity skills. Stakeholders also stated that as automated systems become more common across transportation modes, overseeing them will require understanding vehicle operating systems, software code, and the vast amounts of data produced by these systems to ensure their safety.

Skills Needed to Oversee the Safety of Automated Technologies, according to Stakeholders

Skills Needed to Oversee the Safety of Automated Technologies, according to Stakeholders

The U.S. Department of Transportation's (DOT) Departmental Office of Human Resources Management has identified most skills DOT needs to oversee automated technologies, but it has not fully assessed whether its workforce has these skills. Through its workforce planning efforts, DOT identified many of the skills cited by stakeholders as important for overseeing automated technologies—regulatory expertise, engineering, and data analysis. In 2016 and 2020, DOT surveyed staff in related positions and identified gaps in some of these skills, including regulatory expertise. However, DOT did not survey staff or assess skill gaps in data analysis or cybersecurity positions important to automated technology oversight. As a result, DOT lacks critical information needed to identify skill gaps and ensure key relevant staff are equipped to oversee the safety of these technologies now and in the future.

DOT developed strategies to address some but not all gaps in skills needed to oversee automated technologies. For example, DOT implemented some recruiting strategies and established hiring goals as a means of closing gaps identified in the 2016 survey and plans to continue these efforts in light of the 2020 survey. However, DOT has not tracked the progress of strategies implemented to close skill gaps since the 2016 survey, nor has it implemented training strategies. Accordingly, some skill gaps related to overseeing the safety of automated technologies will likely persist in DOT's workforce.

Why GAO Did This Study

Automated technologies in planes, trains, and passenger vehicles are in use today and likely to become increasingly widespread. While these technologies hold promise, accidents involving them demonstrate potential safety challenges. DOT is responsible for overseeing the safety of all modes of transportation.

This report addresses: (1) stakeholders' perspectives on the skills required to oversee automated technologies; (2) the extent to which DOT has identified and assessed the skills it needs to oversee these technologies; and (3) the extent to which DOT has developed strategies to address any gaps in skills. GAO reviewed relevant literature and DOT workforce planning documents, and interviewed DOT human capital officials, selected modal administrations, and stakeholders, including transportation associations and technology developers. GAO selected modal administrations based in part on the prevalence of automated technologies.

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Recommendations

GAO is making four recommendations, including that DOT: (1) assess skill gaps in key occupations involved in overseeing automated technologies and (2) regularly measure the progress of strategies implemented to close skill gaps. DOT concurred with three recommendations and partially concurred with one on measuring progress. GAO clarified this recommendation and believes its implementation is warranted.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Transportation The Director of DOT's Department of Human Resources should complete efforts to identify all cybersecurity occupations across the agency, and incorporate those related to overseeing the cybersecurity of automated technologies into its workforce planning efforts, such as the Workforce Transformation Chart. (Recommendation 1)
Open
DOT agreed with this recommendation. In June 2021, DOT noted that it plans to complete efforts to identify all cybersecurity occupations across the agency by June 30, 2022, and at that time will assess whether any changes to its workforce planning efforts, such as the Workforce Transformation Chart, are appropriate. We will review these efforts once they are complete.
Department of Transportation The Director of DOT's Department of Human Resources should assess skill gaps in key occupations that are involved in overseeing the safety of automated technologies. (Recommendation 2)
Open
DOT agreed with this recommendation. In June 2021, DOT noted that its Department of Human Resources would work with the newly-established Highly Automated Systems Safety Center of Excellence to create a plan and timeline for determining competencies and assessing skill gaps in key occupational groups that are involved in overseeing the safety of automated technologies. DOT noted it would complete this plan by December 31, 2021, and would complete an occupational assessment--including defining skill gaps in key occupations involved in overseeing the safety of automated technologies--by December 31, 2023. We will review DOT's plan, timeline, occupational assessment, and skill gaps identified when they are available.
Department of Transportation The Director of DOT's Department of Human Resources should regularly measure the progress of strategies implemented to close skill gaps—such as on an annual basis—and ensure modal administrations offer training to close those gaps. (Recommendation 3)
Open
DOT partially agreed with this recommendation. In June 2021, DOT noted that its current program of conducting comprehensive assessments of skill gaps every 3 years is sufficient to measure the progress of strategies implemented to close skill gaps. However, DOT also noted that it has formed a workgroup to design and enhance efforts to identify, monitor, and measure and track mitigation of competency skill gaps. DOT also noted that it will require modal administrations to submit quarterly reports on developmental opportunities they have implemented to help close existing competency gaps. DOT projects the design of this effort will be complete by December 31, 2021, with full implementation by June 2023. We will review these efforts as they are completed.
Department of Transportation The Director of DOT's Department of Human Resources should collect and analyze information on the effectiveness of recruiting strategies, such as special payment authorities, in attracting staff to occupations that oversee the safety of automated technologies, and share effective strategies with modal administrations. (Recommendation 4)
Open
DOT agreed with this recommendation. In June 2021, DOT's Department of Human Resources stated that it has an ongoing process to disseminate shared recruiting best practices and strategies across DOT. DOT's Department of Human Resources also noted that it will conduct an annual review to analyze the effectiveness of current and future recruitment strategies, including positions that oversee the safety of automated technologies. DOT plans to conduct these reviews at the end of each calendar year, and will share the initial review with all modal administrations by May 31, 2022. We will assess the annual review when it is available.

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