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Published: Sat, 29 Apr 2017 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Sat, 29 Apr 2017 13:49:04 -0400


Trump Administration to Review Obama-Era CAFE Standards

Wed, 15 Mar 2017 16:15:00 -0400

On its way out the door in January, the Obama administration rushed to lock in the Environmental Protection Agency's Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards at 54.5 miles per gallon for light duty vehicles by 2025. The final determination also calculated that the higher CAFE standards would save American drivers nearly $100 billion in fuel costs by 2025. Today, President Donald Trump told a cheering audience of auto industry workers in Michigan: "We're going to work on the CAFE standards so you can make cars in America again. We're going to help companies so they are going to help you. We're going to be the car capital of the world again." New EPA administrator Scott Pruitt also announced today that the agency in coordination with the Department of Transportation's (DOT) National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will reconsider the final determination and decide by April 1, 2018 whether the Obama-era CAFE standards will stand. The reconsideration of the stringent CAFE standards is taking place at the request of American automakers who argue in a February letter to Pruitt that they are unachievable using currently foreseen automotive technologies. In its letter the Alliance of Auto Manufacturers asserts that the Obama adminstration's EPA final determination is "riddled with indefensible assumptions" regarding available technologies, consumer acceptance, technology affordability, and industry employment effects. The Alliance is not asking for a different final determination "at this time." The group just wants the agency resume the evaluation "consistent with the timetable embodied in the EPA's own regulations." The environmental lobby is not happy. "Americans don't want to return to days of more pollution and higher fuel costs. They want a clean, efficient economy. Rolling back vehicle fuel standards would make Americans spend more at the pump, leaving them with less for their families and basic needs," declared Kristin Igusky, Climate Program Associate at the World Resources Institute in a statement. "In compelling a review of these standards, the administration is creating more uncertainty and blocking progress toward cleaner, more efficient vehicles for America." Whatever else they do, CAFE standards especially hurt the poor. As I reported in January: In a new study contrasting the effects on consumers of energy efficiency standards versus energy taxes, the Georgetown economist Arik Levinson notes that both energy efficiency standards and energy taxes function as a regressive tax, taking a larger percentage of a lower income and a smaller percentage of a higher income. His analysis aims to find out which is more regressive—in other words, which is worse for poor Americans. Levinson cites earlier research that estimates a gasoline tax would cost 71 percent less than the comparable CAFE policy per gallon of fuel saved. Meanwhile, a 2013 study calculates that CAFE standards cost more than six times as much as a corresponding gas tax for the same reduction in fuel consumption. In other words, if policy makers want people to use less fuel and drive more fuel-efficient cars, taxing gasoline is a much cheaper way to achieve that goal than mandating automobile fuel efficiency. Levinson concludes that "efficiency standards are, ironically, inefficient." I have long been a critic of CAFE standards. Back in 2009, for example, I concluded that Obama's proposed CAFE standards operate as an inefficient stealth tax on driving. It's inefficient because drivers pay more, car companies make less money, and state and federal governments don't get any extra revenues. If activists and politicians want Americans to drive more fuel-efficient cars, the simple and honest thing to do would be to substantially raise gasoline taxes concluded a 2002 National Academy of Sciences report. Ultimately, I argued, setting CAFE standards is just a way for cowardly politicians to avoid telling their fellow citizens that they should pay more for the privilege of driving. If that's what our political leaders think, then they shoul[...]

General Motors Wants to Outlaw Silicon Valley Self-Driving Car Competition

Fri, 24 Feb 2017 15:35:00 -0500

(image) In December, the Michigan legislature adopted the SAVE Act pretending that its goal was to help get self-driving vehicles on Michigan's roads as soon as possible. Fortune magazine actually declared that the state had passed the "most permissive self-driving car laws in the country." In some respects, maybe yes, but the Act contains a telling bit of crony capitalism: "A motor vehicle manufacturer may participate in a SAVE project if it self-certifies to all of the following: (a) That it is a motor vehicle manufacturer. A person that is not a motor vehicle manufacturer may not participate in a SAVE project."

In other words, it is a naked attempt to protect legacy vehicle manufacturers, like Ford, GM, Chrysler-Fiat, etc., from competition with software companies like Google and ride-hailing services like Uber. In the case of Michigan, Waymo, the self-driving division of Alphabet (Google), managed to get itself grandfathered after pointing out that its self-driving vehicles had vastly more actual road testing experience than any of the automakers.

According to The Wall Street Journal, GM is now getting pet legislators to introduce the SAVE ACT in other states. The Journal reports that Illinois state Rep. Michael Zalewski has introduced a bill that, like Michigan's, would limit access for testing self-driving vehicles on that state's roads to companies that make their own vehicles.

That means GM would be eligible, but not tech companies like Uber Technologies Inc. that are developing their own self-driving cars and don't make their own vehicles.

"General Motors approached me about it and suggested that they had success last year in Michigan [with a similar bill], and they consider Chicago a big market for them," Mr. Zalewski, a Democrat, said in an interview. "We went from there." ...

After falling behind in self-driving cars, GM has unleashed its powerful lobbying team to cultivate relationships with statehouses. The largest U.S. vehicle maker by sales has a long history of backing legislation to preserve its interests, including a bill in Indiana last year that would stop electric-vehicle maker Tesla Inc. from operating its own stores there.

This is outrageous.

In my July 2016 article, "Will Politicians Block Our Driverless Future?," I reported that when a U.S. Senate committee asked then-head of Google's self-driving vehicle program Chris Urmson what additional legislation was needed, he replied: "What we have found in most places is that the best action is to take no action. And that in general the technology can be safely tested today on roads in many states."

In other words, stay away.

The scurrilous motivations behind the SAVE Act might be best summarized as "I'm from the government and I'm here to help my cronies by hurting their competitors."

For more background, see my March 2017 article, "Bad News: The Government Wants to 'Help' Driverless Car Companies."

Brickbat: Don't Touch That!

Wed, 18 Jan 2017 04:00:00 -0500

(image) Two Washington state lawmakers have introduced a bill that would make it illegal even to touch your phone while driving. The bill would also more than double the fine for distracted driving to $350 from $124.

Calif. Legislator Wants to Expand Teen Driving Curfews to Some Adults

Mon, 09 Jan 2017 12:15:00 -0500

One California state legislator wants to expand the state's apparent desire to treat grown adults like teens by restricting their driving rights. California last year passed legislation increasing the legal age for residents to purchase cigarettes to 21. Now Democratic Assemblyman Jim Frazier of Oakley has introduced legislation to treat adult drivers like they're still teenagers until they reach 21. Frazier has introduced AB 63, which expands California's provisional driver's licensing program to all drivers under 21. What does that mean? We'll let Frazier's bill speak for itself: Existing law, the Brady-Jared Teen Driver Safety Act of 1997, establishes a provisional licensing program and generally requires that a driver's license issued to a person at least 16 years of age but under 18 years of age be issued pursuant to that provisional licensing program. During the first 12 months after issuance of a provisional license, existing law prohibits the licensee from driving between the hours of 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. and transporting passengers who are under 20 years of age, unless he or she is accompanied and supervised by a licensed driver, as specified, or a licensed or certified driving instructor. Existing law provides limited exceptions to these restrictions under which a licensee is authorized to drive under specified circumstances, including a school or school-authorized activity or an employment necessity, and requires the licensee to keep certain supporting documentation in his or her possession. A violation of these provisions is punishable as an infraction. This bill would expand the scope of the provisional licensing program by extending the applicable age range for the program to 16 to under 21 years of age. By expanding the scope of the provisional licensing program, the violation of which constitutes an infraction, the bill would impose a state-mandated local program. The bill would authorize a licensee who is 18, 19, or 20 years of age to keep in his or her possession a copy of his or her class schedule or work schedule as documentation to satisfy the exceptions for a school or school-authorized activity and employment necessity, respectively, and would provide that a signed statement by a parent or legal guardian is not required if reasonable transportation facilities are inadequate and the operation of a vehicle by a licensee who is 18, 19, or 20 years of age is necessary to transport the licensee or the licensee's immediate family member. The bill would make other technical and conforming changes. The bill would also include specified findings and declarations. The law would put a statewide curfew in place for adult drivers between the ages of 18 to 21 for one year, just like the state has for teens. Adults who fit in this category will have to carry around paperwork to show government officials (police officers) that they have the authority to be driving "after hours" for reasons that the state permits. It's a grotesque violation of the right for adults to travel freely, all for the name of public safety, of course. Frazier cites all sorts of demographic data about young people behind the wheel. From the East Bay Times: Frazier cited research from the Governors Highway Safety Association that found that over the last 10 years improvement in fatal crash rates were better among drivers between the ages of 15 and 17 than among their 18- to 20-year-old counterparts. Additionally, the GHSA found that older teens were twice as likely to be involved in a fatal crash between midnight and 6 a.m. and attributed this to provisional licensing programs. "Some folks say it is very restrictive to teens and folks who don't have experience driving," Frazier said. "The most restrictive part is the part where they end up in a casket." It might not surprise readers to learn that Frazier tragically lost a daughter in a car crash in 2000. Whenever we see a proposal that restricts the liberty of citizens with stabs at increasing public safety, [...]

Why New Cellphone Restrictions Won't Have a Noticeable Impact on Crashes

Fri, 06 Jan 2017 08:30:00 -0500

In 2015, according to numbers released this week by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), "distraction-affected crashes" killed 3,477 people in the United States. A California law that took effect on Sunday, imposing further restrictions of drivers' use of cellphones, is supposed to do something about that problem, but there is little reason to think it will. NHTSA's numbers indicate that cellphones are implicated in just 13 percent of traffic fatalities involving distracted drivers—which in turn account for 10 percent of traffic fatalities, meaning that cellphones play a role in something like 1.3 percent of deaths caused by car crashes. The vast majority of distraction-related crashes involve less commonly discussed (and less vociferously condemned) activities such as "eating and drinking," "talking to passengers," "grooming," "reading, including maps," and "adjusting a radio, CD player, or MP3 player." If it does not make sense for states to pass laws specifically prohibiting each of these distractions, why single out cellphones? Another problem with California's approach is that it seeks to stop drivers from holding cellphones while still allowing hands-free use. But according to NHTSA, "the research indicates that the cognitive distraction of having a hands-free phone conversation causes drivers to miss the important visual and audio cues that would ordinarily help you avoid a crash." Or as Steve Finnegan, government affairs manager at the Automobile Club of Southern California, tells The New York Times, "It's not what your hands are doing; it's what your brain is doing." All 14 states that restrict drivers' cellphone use nevertheless say hands-free calls are OK, and no state prohibits conversations with passengers, which are at least as distracting. Cellphone restrictions have not had a measurable impact on traffic fatalities. David Kidd, a senior researcher at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, tells the Times "there is evidence that if you do pass a law and have strong enforcement, it can change behavior." But he adds that "we don't see a reduction in crashes that is consistent with that change in behavior." That's not surprising, since these laws deal with a highly visible, relatively novel factor that figures in 1 percent of car accidents, imposing restrictions that even theoretically can make a difference in only a fraction of that 1 percent—the accidents where holding a phone plays a crucial role. The Times notes that Kidd's organization "is more focused on encouraging automakers to adapt crash avoidance technologies such as forward collision warning and automatic emergency breaking, both technological measures that are intended to help prevent front-to-rear crashes." As Kidd explains, these safety features "are not going to reduce driver distraction, but they will help cope with some of the consequences that come with drivers not paying attention." The difference in focus between legislators and insurers can be explained by a difference in motives. While insurers have a financial incentive to reduce their payouts by reducing crashes, legislators have a political incentive to seem like they are addressing the problem, whether or not the policies they support actually have an impact.[...]

Calif. to Treat Smart Phones in Cars as Just Slightly Less Dangerous than Loaded Guns

Thu, 29 Dec 2016 11:45:00 -0500

The end of the year brings the whole host of reminders about the new laws that state legislatures have passed through the last term and are finally coming into effect. California is fertile ground for legislative meddling in lives, and the start of every year brings stories about the hundreds of new rules coming into play. January will see new reasons for police to extract money from citizens—I mean, "protect public safety." A new state law makes it illegal to even hold your smart phone while you're driving. The Sacramento Bee (which opens its piece by simply asserting without evidence that "distracted driving has reached dangerous levels") explains AB 1785: The law is designed to stop people from holding their phones for a variety of uses that have become popular in recent years, including checking and posting on Facebook, using Snapchat, scrolling through Spotify or Pandora playlists, typing addresses into the phone's mapping system, or making videos and taking photos. A California Office of Traffic Safety study this year determined that 1 out of 8 drivers on the road is paying as much attention to his or her smartphone as to the road. State road safety officials estimate that some form of distracted driving is a factor in 80 percent of crashes. That's prompted numerous education and enforcement efforts in California aimed at reducing distracted driving. Note the subtle shifting of facts in the second paragraph. More drivers are paying attention to their smartphones, causing distractions. Distractions factor into 80 percent of all crashes. But there is a huge failure there to actually connect smartphone use to an increase in crashes. Crash stats had been going down in recent years but the trend had recently started reversing. A very, very relevant contributor to the shift is that more people are driving more miles as the economy has recovered. That's naturally, statistically going to lead to more collisions. Ed Krayewski looked over the fatal collision stats back in September and found the evidence that phones are making driving more dangerous underwhelming. But politicians see little downside or negative consequence in passing laws that make people feel safer even if they don't, so here we are. The law does allow use of smartphones with voice activation and to touch the phone simply for the purpose of activating or deactivating an app, but the phone must also be placed in a mounted spot inside the car. So anybody sitting there with the smartphone in their lap while having their GPS recite instructions to them is going to be breaking the law, even if they aren't holding it up to their ear or being "distracted" by it. California drivers could face additional fines if they get pulled over even when they aren't using a phone in a way that distracts them simply because it doesn't comply with the very restrictive rules on how the state says you should attach the phone to your car: "either a 7-inch square in the lower corner of the windshield on the passenger side, or a 5-inch square in the lower corner of the windshield to the driver's left." The fine is $20 for the first offense and $50 for each additional offense. If only there weren't some sort of way for police to evaluate and cite people for behavior behind the wheel that is dangerous to others that is not attached to an absurdly overbroad ban on a piece of technology, blaming it for the behavior and not the driver. Maybe something about those who engage in reckless driving habits without regard to others? Something like that? Read more about the new law here and wonder if it'll still apply when we're all using self-driving cars.[...]

Ford Gets It Right on Self-Driving Cars

Thu, 29 Dec 2016 11:05:00 -0500

(image) Ford Motors has just unveiled the latest iteration of its self-driving automobile, a modified Ford Fusion that processes a terabyte of information per hour from lidar, radar, optical sensors, high resolution 3D maps, GPS and more to navigate itself. The new vehicles still require someone to sit in the driver's seat to monitor the car and take over if it gets confused. However, Ford is on the right path; the company wants to build a fully autonomous car available for ride-hailing and ride-sharing services by 2021. That car will dispense with fripperies like steering wheels and pedals.

The key is that Ford is aiming for full autonomy, not half-assed autonomy that requires a driver to take over whenever an alarm bell sounds. Chris Brewer, Chief Program Engineer, Ford Autonomous Vehicle Development explains:

Building a car that will not be controlled by a human driver is completely different from designing a conventional vehicle, and this raises a whole new set of questions for our autonomous vehicle engineering team: How do you replicate everything a human driver does behind the wheel in a vehicle that drives itself? ...

Just as we have confidence in ourselves and other drivers, we need to develop a robust virtual driver system with the same level of dependability to make decisions, and then carry them out appropriately on the go. We're doing that at Ford by taking a unique approach to help make our autonomous cars see, sense, think and perform like a human — in fact, better, in some cases.

With regard to performing better than human drivers, automated vehicles will have access to lots more information. For example, the Ford Fusion cars' lidars have a 360 degree sensing range the length of two football fields. Virtual drivers could use this superior information and their finer control over the car's steering, brakes, throttle, etc. to pull off evasive manuevers in dangerous situations that a normal human could not achieve.

For more skeptical view of when fully autonomous vehicles will become available, see Reason Foundation Director of Transporation Policy Bob Poole's Reason TV interview below. Among other things, Poole says that his skepticism about the speedy deployment of self-driving cars "is coming from researchers, serious researchers, not reporters writing in the popular press, at UC Berkeley, at Carnegie-Mellon, and at MIT...." Ouch.

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For a reporter's view, see my article, "Will Politicians Block Our Driverless Future?" Bob, want to place a friendly bet?

Why It's a Good Thing That Driverless Cars and Trucks Are Going To Take Decades...

Tue, 06 Dec 2016 10:30:00 -0500

Yesterday, we posted a video conversation with me and Reason Foundation founder Bob Poole talking about the promises and timeline for fully automated cars and trucks to take over America's highways and city streets. Watch that here on Reason's YouTube channel. Poole's main point isn't that driverless cars and trucks aren't a good thing, but most of the hype surrounding them is just that: hype. It's one thing to create trucks, say, that can drive the interstates in special lanes over long distances. That's a tough challenge, but one that can be handled relatively easily (big emphasis on relatively). But at some point, those trucks need to break bulk and their contents need to get repacked into smaller delivery trucks. Safely navigating city or suburban streets is a massively more difficult enterprise and it's one that needs to be taken into account when projecting the costs and benefits of a driverless economy. Similarly, argues Poole, who knows transportation policy better than most parents know their own kids, the death of owner-operated cars is probably wildly overexaggerated. You can't take desultory ownership trends from years of the Great Recession and extrapolate forward. Yes, we use our cars for only a few hours a day at best, so the dream of just having on-demand transportation show up when we summon it (Uber! Lyft! Etc.!) is attractive, but we also pay for the ability to get into our mobiles whenever we want. The price is set by our peak demand, not our average demand. None of this is to say that a driverless world won't happen or that it won't be a good thing. As much as I love driving, if I never had to do it again—or pay for a car repair directly out of pocket—I'd be a happy camper. It's just that the overhyped timeline for the full transition is 30 or more years away, assuming everything goes smoothly. The good news with that? All the equally overhyped fears about 3.5 million truckers being thrown out of work overnight is equally nonsense. Like almost all major changes driven by technology and economics, creative destruction doesn't actually happen in a quick, unpredictable fashion. Indeed, to the extent that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump kept harping during the 2016 campaign on bringing manufacturing jobs back to the United States, you'd think factory work disappeared overnight. In absolute numbers, manufacturing jobs as a percentage of employment peaked in the late 1970s. That's 30-plus years ago, so stories about towns being decimated by overnight closures are, for lack of a better word, bullshit. I lived in Buffalo, New York in the early 1990s and people there were acting as if aliens had descended and stripped out all factory and heavy-industry jobs in a 24-hour period. In fact, the city's population (and economy) had peaked in 1950 and industrial employment had been bleeding out for decades. The idea that places get turned into a wasteland overnight is the worst sort of nostalgia that helps no one but keeps whole areas frozen in time. Manufacturing as a percentage of the U.S. workforce peaked in 1943—during World War II!—at about 38 percent. Since then, there's been a long, slow, totally predictable decline in the number of Americans working in factories that everyone could see coming and continuing. The point of that history lesson? Occupational change, like technological change, takes more time and gives more room to adapt than we normally think. Yes, travel agents have in many ways been superseded by online services. The typing pool is never going to make a comeback. Traditional taxi drivers are almost certainly sunsetting. And long-haul trucking and car-based delivery men and women might not be needed in 2050. But the upside of fully automated vehicles taking longer than Elon Musk predicts is that we'll have more time to adapt to the world as it changes and retool our skills and sensibilities. [...]

Sorry, Elon Musk! Driverless Cars Will Take Longer Than You Think.

Mon, 05 Dec 2016 10:00:00 -0500

If you listen to Elon Musk, driverless cars are a technology that are just around the corner.

"I really consider autonomous driving a solved problem," Musk said in June 2016 in The Guardian. "I think we are probably less than two years away."

But, Bob Poole, Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow and Director of Transportation Policy at Reason Foundation is skeptical of Musk's timeline. "Skepticism is coming partly from researchers [...] at UC Berkeley, at Carnegie Mellon, at MIT who say this is a much harder problem than a lot of people, including Elon Musk, make it out to be."

Poole suggested to Reason TV's Editor in Chief, Nick Gillespie, that it will take a few decades at least before engineers are able to figure out the unexpected surprises of driving on city streets, not to mention the high cost of implementation into a market of cars that are not driverless. Further, Poole points out that once driverless options are available, they may completely throw a wrench in city transportation projects that are projected to take 30 to 40 years to build.

Interview by Nick Gillespie. Editing by Paul Detrick. Shot by Meredith Bragg and Jim Epstein.

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Trump Regulatory Rollback: Auto Fuel Efficiency Standards

Fri, 11 Nov 2016 17:00:00 -0500

(image) The Obama Administration imposed fuel efficiency standards on the automobile industry requiring them to increase fuel efficiency standards to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. Now carmakers are reportedly asking the incoming Trump administration for a "a pathway forward" on setting final fuel efficiency standards through 2025 and calling on the next administration to "harmonize and adjust" the rules.

Predictably, any hint that regulations might be rolled back brings forth howls of protest from activists. And so it has. Public Citizen, the self-styled "people's voice in the nation's capital" issued a press release decrying the notion that corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards might be loosened:

In 2009, in the aftermath of financial losses that stemmed from poor sales of inefficient fleets and higher oil prices, American taxpayers rescued the auto industry after it nearly went out of business. Now, this same industry sent a memo to Trump's lobbyist-staffed transition team asking for permission to ease off improved fuel economy standards.

Let's not forget that the reason the auto industry had to be bailed out was because automakers built a fleet of gas-guzzling sports utility vehicles that they could no longer sell. More fuel efficient cars would have saved them and taxpayers the trouble, but now it appears that the auto industry has learned nothing from its recent mistakes.

Federal regulators raised fuel efficiency standards because they save consumers money and are an important part of our effort to combat climate change.

Back in 2009, I criticized Obama's proposed CAFE standards as an inefficient stealth tax on driving. It's inefficient because drivers pay more, car companies make less money, and state and federal governments don't get any extra revenues. If activists and politicians want Americans to drive more fuel-efficient cars, the simple and honest thing to do would be to substantially raise gasoline taxes concluded a 2002 National Academy of Sciences report. Ultimately, I argued, setting CAFE standards is just a way for cowardly politicians to avoid telling their fellow citizens that they should pay more for the privilege of driving.

Brickbat: Phantom Tickets

Thu, 29 Sep 2016 04:00:00 -0400

(image) Last year, Joseph Youngstein's 2004 Dodge Durango was stolen and totaled. He turned the plates in to the New York Department of Motor Vehicles and got a receipt saying they'd been destroyed. So he wonders why he keeps getting tickets issued to the old license plates. He is also angry that his new vehicle, a Chevy Equinox with completely different plates, got booted because of all the tickets on the old plates.

Google Self-Driving Car in Crash: Like Always, Humans at Fault

Wed, 28 Sep 2016 12:03:00 -0400

(image) A van t-boned a Google self-driving car as its driver ran a red light. The car was pretty well wrecked but apparently no one in either vehicle was greatly harmed. In a statement to 9to5Google, the company noted:

A Google vehicle was traveling northbound on Phyllis Ave. in Mountain View when a car heading westbound on El Camino Real ran a red light and collided with the right side of our vehicle. Our light was green for at least six seconds before our car entered the intersection. Thousands of crashes happen everyday on U.S. roads, and red-light running is the leading cause of urban crashes in the U.S. Human error plays a role in 94% of these crashes, which is why we're developing fully self-driving technology to make our roads safer.

Red-light running human drivers have hit Google vehicles before. For example, Google's latest montly report on its self-driving car project noted:


In that same report, the other four accidents involved human drivers in other cars rear-ending Google vehicles.

Brickbat: Obscure Law

Fri, 23 Sep 2016 04:00:00 -0400

(image) When Victoria Herrington got a ticket for having an obscured license plate, she couldn't believe it. All of the letters and numbers on the plate and the renewal sticker were clearly visible. But the dealer's plate frame obscure the on the very top of the plate, and that's why she was cited.

Feds Want to Support Automated Cars. Oh, Also: They Want Much More Regulatory Authority.

Tue, 20 Sep 2016 12:40:00 -0400

The good news is that the federal government genuinely does want self-driving or automated vehicles to happen. Credit a heavily technocratic Obama administration that loves the idea of replacing the poor choices of feckless citizens with smooth, sleek algorithms. Today, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released a 116-page report detailing how it plans to regulate the introduction of these cars, which they're calling "highly automated vehicles," or HAVs. So we can have a debate over whether it should be legal to allow HAVs to drive in HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lanes. The administration wants these cars on the road, but on its own terms. President Barack Obama makes it clear in a guest commentary over at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where HAVs are now being tested on the road. He also makes it clear that the federal government will be deciding what is and isn't safe. Obama and the NHTSA are your parents watching you do a wacky chemistry experiment for a science fair project making sure you don't mix the wrong things together: Regulation can go too far. Government sometimes gets it wrong when it comes to rapidly changing technologies. That's why this new policy is flexible and designed to evolve with new advances. There are always those who argue that government should stay out of free enterprise entirely, but I think most Americans would agree we still need rules to keep our air and water clean, and our food and medicine safe. That's the general principle here. What's more, the quickest way to slam the brakes on innovation is for the public to lose confidence in the safety of new technologies. Both government and industry have a responsibility to make sure that doesn't happen. And make no mistake: If a self-driving car isn't safe, we have the authority to pull it off the road. We won't hesitate to protect the American public's safety. To be completely clear, "For [the Department of Transportation], the excitement around highly automated vehicles (HAVs) starts with safety," is a sentence somebody actually wrote with complete sincerity in the executive summary of the report. Much of the report is technical, dry, and about figuring out how HAV regulations fit within existing federal framework. That is very nearly praise, given the much worse potential alternatives. The NHTSA is providing guidance to the states in the report, trying to separate what the federal government wants to control (establishing vehicle safety standards, managing recalls, issuing guidance to manufacturers) and what it wants to leave to the states (licensing drivers, enforcing traffic laws, managing safety inspections and liability rules) Essentially it's similar to the separation of authorities over vehicles right now, but what they're trying to do is prevent individual states (and cities) from creating their own rules about what an HAV must have or do in order to be allowed on the road. It's one thing to have different speed limits from state to state; it's something else entirely if it's illegal for the vehicle you're in to be on the road in some states but not others. That's exactly what has happened in some states when lawmakers passed their own regulations. But despite the emphasis on making way for innovation and experimentation, make no mistake: The NHTSA is also using the development of HAVs to lobby for more regulatory authority. Buried deeper into the report, after outlining the various processes for car manufacturers to get their vehicles approved, are requests for additional authority to control the process. One of those authorities they're asking for is pre-market approval of new vehicle types and technologies. Read this section and suddenly you might hear the s[...]

Self-Driving Cars: Half-Assed Automation Is Stupid and Dangerous

Fri, 26 Aug 2016 11:05:00 -0400

It's crazy to ride/drive in a car that you need to take control over only when it's about to crash. You may reading a map; talking on the phone; even have drifted off a bit, lulled into a dangerous complacency by the fact that the semi-automated car works just fine in most situations. Then the klaxon rings telling you to take over RIGHT NOW. Of course, you haven't been paying attention, so it will take at least a few vital seconds for you to figure out why your car's computer has panicked and summoned you to take the wheel. Good luck with that! Yet, that is just the future that a lot of automakers seem to be aiming for as they inch toward full self-driving capability. A nice article in the Washington Post describes this fork in the road toward the self-driving car future. Some manufacturers like Audi will keep adding features that allow for mostly hands-free (but not attention-free) driving on, say, limited access highways. On the other hand, Ford, teaming up with Google, aims for fully autonmous vehicles. Initially their vehicles will operate within specified areas, such as, ride hailing services in cities, but eventually they will safely roam free on America's roads and streets. With regard to the imperative of full automation, in my July article, "Will Politicians Block Our Driverless Future?," I reported: [University of Texas engineer Kara] Kockelman argues that semi-autonomous vehicles, or what NHTSA calls "limited self-driving automation," present a big safety problem. With these so-called Level 3 vehicles, drivers cede full control to the car for the most part but must be ready at all times to take over if something untoward occurs. The problem is that such semi-autonomous cars travel along safely 99 percent of the time, allowing the attention of their bored drivers to falter. In an August 2015 study NHTSA reported that depending on the on-board alert, it took some drivers as long as 17 seconds to regain manual control of the semi-autonomous car. "The radical change to full automation is important," argues Kockelman. "Level 3 is too dangerous. We have to jump over that to Level 4 full automation, and most manufacturers don't want to do that. They want protection; they want baby steps; they want special corridors; they won't get that." Consequently the first law of the robocar revolution, according to [former Google consultant Brad] Templeton, is "that you don't change the infrastructure." Whatever functionality is needed to drive safely should be on board each individual vehicle. "Just tell the software people that this is the road you have to drive on and let them figure it out," Templeton says. "Everything you must do is in software or you lose." Some self-driving shuttles confined to specific areas—airports, pedestrian malls, college campuses—will be deployed, but they are not the future of this technology. In other news, Uber announced that it will begin deploying a fleet of 100 self-driving Volvos on the streets of Pittsburgh next month. While the cars will drive themselves, each car will have a "chaperone" to make sure that all goes smoothly and an engineer to record what is going on. As Bloomsberg reports: In Pittsburgh, customers will request cars the normal way, via Uber's app, and will be paired with a driverless car at random. Trips will be free for the time being, rather than the standard local rate of $1.05 per mile. In the long run, [Uber CEO] Kalanick says, prices will fall so low that the per-mile cost of travel, even for long trips in rural areas, will be cheaper in a driverless Uber than in a private car. "That could be seen as a threat," says Volvo Cars CEO Hakan Samuelsson. "We see it as an opportunity." In the[...]