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Published: Fri, 20 Apr 2018 00:00:00 -0400

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Uber Self-Driving Car Hits and Kills Pedestrian in Arizona

Mon, 19 Mar 2018 15:45:00 -0400

(image) The ride-hailing service Uber is temporarily halting tests of self-driving cars because one of them hit and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona. The woman, Elaine Herzberg, was apparently struck while she was crossing the road outside of a crosswalk at night. The car was reportedly operating in autonomous mode while being monitored by a human safety driver. This is apparently the first case in which someone has been killed by an autonomous vehicle.

The company is devising a technology that will let its cars "talk" with pedestrians, in hopes of making such accidents less likely.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that in 2016 the automobile fatality rate averaged 1.18 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. So far, Uber's self-driving vehicles have racked up between 2 and 3 million miles on streets and highways. Obviously this accident will be carefully scrutinized to figure out what happened and who is at fault.

Keep in mind that NHSTA blames 94 percent of automobile crashes on human error. We can be sure that investigators will let us know if robot error is the cause of this unfortunate death.

Americans tolerated far higher fatality rates—as many as 40 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled—at the dawn of the automobile age. The first American killed by an automobile was Henry H. Bliss, who was struck by an electric taxi while helping a lady descend from a streetcar on Central Avenue West in New York City. It took 70 years for automobile fatalities to fall below 2 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. The safety record of self-driving vehicles will presumably improve much faster than that. I fully expect to hail and take my first ride in a fully autonomous vehicle in the next five years.

Trump's NAFTA Antics Will Drive America's Auto Industry Into a Ditch

Mon, 05 Feb 2018 11:15:00 -0500

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) survived another round of negotiations between the United States, Canada, and Mexico last week, but the Trump administration's unreasonable demands on rules of origin for the auto sector threaten to run the successful 24-year-old agreement off the road. President Trump has been bashing NAFTA for years, describing it during the 2016 campaign as "the worst trade deal ever." He came into office promising to either radically overhaul the agreement to better favor American companies and workers or to terminate it entirely. In a sixth round of negotiations last week in Montreal, the president's like-minded U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer pressed a key U.S. demand that Canada and Mexico agree to revise the agreement's rules of origin to require more U.S. content in vehicles that qualify for duty-free treatment under NAFTA. Under current rules, for a motor vehicle to enter the United States duty-free from Canada or Mexico, at least 62.5 percent of its content must originate in the three North American countries. In a misguided effort to boost U.S. auto production, the Trump administration is demanding that the rules be changed to require 85 percent NAFTA content, with 50 percent from the United States. Such a demand would be protectionist in its impact, severing North American auto producers from their global supply chains, ultimately making U.S.-based automakers less competitive in global markets, reducing their sales, production, and employment. The current 62.5-percent requirement is relatively strict already by global standards. It was the result of a compromise when NAFTA was being negotiated in the early 1990s. The U.S. auto sector—back then essentially Ford, GM, and Chrysler—demanded a minimum content requirement of 60 percent. Canada wanted no higher than 60 percent and Mexico wanted 65, so the three parties split the difference. By all objective measures, NAFTA is working well, for the U.S. economy and the U.S. automotive sector. In 2017, U.S.-based automakers produced 11.1 million cars and light trucks. That number has not declined since NAFTA was enacted in 1994, and is in fact above the average annual output of 10.9 million assemblies during the past 30 years. Real U.S. output of motor vehicles and parts, adjusted for inflation and quality, is up 85 percent since the passage of NAFTA, according the Federal Reserve Board. Because of NAFTA, domestic U.S. automakers have been able to deploy their supply chain across North America, creating lower-value vehicles and parts in Mexico while concentrating higher-end production here in the United States. The result has been a U.S. auto sector that is able to deliver more affordable and higher quality cars and trucks to American families while competing more effectively in global export markets. In recent years, U.S. exports of motor vehicles have topped 2 million for the first time. Tightening the rules of origin or, even worse, scrapping NAFTA entirely would put those competitive gains in jeopardy. "We are a seamless manufacturing platform, and it would be extremely difficult to unwind that," noted John Bozzella, CEO of the Association of Global Automakers, at a forum last year. "You will create a big advantage for other manufacturing platforms around the world. We have to be very careful that we don't upset that balance between global competitiveness and supporting U.S. production." It's not even clear that imposing the higher rules of origin demanded by the Trump administration would support U.S. production. If the content rules become onerous, vehicle and parts producers in Canada and Mexico may decide to skip NAFTA qualification and simply pay the normal 2.5 percent car duty the United States assesses on most-favored-nation imports. Cars imported outside of NAFTA, from Canada and Mexico and countries outside North America, would almost certainly contain less U.S. content than those now produced within NAFTA. Unlike the Trump trade team, the negotiating teams from Canada and Mexico [...]

Proposed California Car Ban a Perfect Mix of Hubris and Silliness

Fri, 19 Jan 2018 00:15:00 -0500

It's about time that members of Congress and the California legislature got really serious about combating the nation's pollution problem. Just as Jonathan Swift had a "modest proposal" to keep poor Irish children from being a burden to their families and their country (by selling them to wealthy English people as food), I, too, have a modest proposal for dealing with the unconscionable level of pollutants that are emitted in the U.S. to produce electricity. Let's propose a plan to shut down the nation's power plants. The facts are unmistakable: An environmental group in 2009 reported that the "nation's power plants emitted 2.56 billion tons of global warming pollution... which is equivalent to the pollution from nearly 450 million of today's cars—nearly three times the number of cars registered in the United States in 2007." Even cleaner natural-gas fired plants, which have become more prevalent in ensuing years, "release 21—120 times more methane than earlier estimates," according to a summary of a Purdue University/Environmental Defense Fund report from last year. Do you care about clear air, the health of our children and the future of the planet? Of course you do. So there's little reason to complain about this idea. Before you chalk it up to one columnist's silliness, consider that some California policy makers are proposing something equally "modest" and ludicrous. Yet they seem totally serious about it. Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) and some other Assembly members have introduced legislation that would ban the registration of passenger vehicles that are not "zero emissions." Assembly Bill 1745 would, beginning in 2040, prohibit the California Department of Motor Vehicles "from accepting an application for original registration of a motor vehicle unless the vehicle is a zero emissions vehicle." Likewise, California Air Resources Board chairwoman Mary Nichols told Bloomberg in an interview that Gov. Jerry Brown (D) "has expressed an interest in barring the sale of vehicles powered by internal-combustion engines." The governor reportedly wondered why China is able to do this and lawmakers haven't considered it in California. So now California's legislature is indeed considering something that would, according to the article, "send shockwaves through the global car industry due to the heft of California's auto market." Shockwaves for such a modest proposal? It's not as if the underlying concept—banning stuff that our political leaders don't like—is anything new. As a colleague noted, perhaps California lawmakers ought to simply ban the production and sale of meat-based products, also, given the ill effects of slaughterhouses on the environment, our diets, and on the quality of life of the animals that end up on our dinner tables. We've got to think out of the box. The bill would exempt large commercial vehicles and cars brought to California from other states. Perhaps legislators aren't thinking big enough. Sure, this column has a mocking tone and hasn't dealt with the actual arguments in favor of a ban on gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles, but there really aren't any serious arguments for doing this. The apparent goal is to reduce pollution, but the real goal may be about making a moral statement and grabbing headlines. Journalist H.L. Mencken wrote that politics is about keeping people alarmed "with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary." That's a bit overstated, sure. Pollution remains a serious problem, but it's best handled through market advancements, not by allowing politicians to scare us into embracing fake "solutions." It's reality time. California is not going to get rid of polluting vehicles—or power plants, for that matter—by banning them. It would mostly harm the poor, who cannot afford the pricey new electric vehicles. But maybe they can consider selling their children to help afford the latest Tesla. EVs are great advancements, but even though they have no tailpipe, they will increase our reliance on powe[...]

Junkyard Blight No More

Sun, 14 Jan 2018 06:00:00 -0500

Like oil-slicked seagulls and smokestacks spewing black fumes, piles of rusting cars were standard symbols of environmental blight in the 1960s and early '70s. "Few of America's eyesores are so unsightly as its millions of junked automobiles," President Richard Nixon declared in a 1970 speech.

Although Americans had been dumping cars since the 1920s, replacing worn-out models with new wheels, the problem was a relatively late-breaking one. Up through the 1950s, junkyard workers would rip apart the cars and recycle their components. During World War II, U.S. Marshals even seized scrapped cars from a Maryland junkyard whose owner "had refused to sell the much-needed materials at established prices."

By the '60s, however, wages had risen, making it too expensive to pull old cars apart by hand, and steel mills were getting pickier about what they would accept. "The problem was copper: even a small amount—1 percent or so—when melted in a steel furnace will weaken the properties of steel," writes Adam Minter in Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade (Bloomsbury). Once steel mills stopped buying the old scrap, junk cars started piling up. Making the problem worse were new bans on the incinerators that had previously burned away everything but a car's recyclable metal, producing choking black smoke in the process.

City, state, and federal officials all tinkered with regulations designed to hide or eliminate the blight of junked cars, without much success. "Abandoned cars are the biggest pollution problem this country has," a Pittsburgh official told The New York Times in 1972. By then, however, the solution was on its way.

It had started on an airplane in 1955, as businessman Sam Proler was throwing back screwdrivers and mulling a problem. Sam was one of four Houston brothers who owned Proler Steel Corp., a company that had found itself stuck with 40,000 tons of recycled-car bundles that steel mills would no longer accept. "They had too many contaminants, like copper and rubber," he told Recycling Today in 2007.

But Proler had an idea. What if instead of burning away the impurities and smashing cars into blocks, you could put a whole automobile into a hammermill like the industrial shredders used to break up rocks, chop animal feed, or chip wood? He asked the flight attendant for some paper and began sketching.

Turning the sketch into a working machine took several years—Proler received a patent in 1960—but the Prolerizer, as it came to be known, did the job. It reduced a car to what contemporary journalists described as "corn flakes" and used magnets to separate the iron and steel from other components. The machine was a monster: 1,000 feet long, with motors "taken from naval destroyer escort vessels," it "had 12-foot flywheels and 6,000 horsepower," brother Hymie Proler said in 2002.

Rumors of the new invention inspired another Texas innovator's more compact solution. Alton Newell owned a scrap yard in San Antonio, where he was already shredding car parts, if not full automobiles. "As soon as we saw that that could be done," his son Scott told Minter, Newell decided to build a shredder big enough to take a whole car. He also realized he could make it smaller and cheaper, with lower power requirements, than the Prolerizer.

The trick was to feed the car in little by little, rather than all at once. He dubbed his side-feed roller The Insight.

That move, concludes Minter, whose own family ran a scrap business, is what "made the shredder affordable to smaller scrapyards and cleaned up the mess of cars polluting the American countryside." It took decades to work through the built-up supply, but the two shredder models eventually solved the problem regulation couldn't, making piles of junked cars as obsolete as tail fins.

Florida Bill Would Make it a Crime to be the Victim of Auto Theft

Tue, 12 Dec 2017 11:00:00 -0500

(image) Florida state Rep. Wengay Newton (D–St. Petersburg) is so tough on auto theft that he wants to punish the crime's victims as well.

Newton has introduced a bill that would make it a criminal offense to have your car stolen if you leave it unlocked with the keys inside. His legislation would make this a second-degree misdemeanor; violators would face fines of up to $500 and jail time of up to 60 days.

But only if the person who steals the car is a minor. Having the same unlocked car stolen by an adult would not be a criminal offense.

"We have a lot of juveniles getting access to vehicles unlawfully. However, these juveniles are not using guns or force. These vehicles are pretty much just left running with keys in them," Newton told WTSP. He claims his bill would "close this floodgate of a crime of opportunity."

Leaving one's car unlocked can already lead to a citation in Florida, but a Tampa Bay Times analysis found that these are rarely issued.

Not surprisingly, this proposal has prompted some pushback from people who say it's unfair to crime victims. That includes a number of law enforcement officials.

"I don't think it would be appropriate to charge a victim for a crime," Clearwater Police Chief Daniel Slaughter told the Tampa Bay Times. "When we're trying to build trust in the community, it wouldn't really breed a culture of trust between victims and law enforcement." St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway expressed similar sentiments, pointing out to the paper that "people won't report it, or they'll lie to us."

Newton insists his bill wouldn't punish real victims. "I had a lady follow me after a panel, saying let me get this straight, Representative, you want to punish me because they steal my car?" Newton said to WTSP. "I said no ma'am, only when you give it away."

Self-Driving Cars Will Make Most Auto Safety Regulations Unnecessary

Mon, 06 Nov 2017 14:14:00 -0500

Federal auto safety regulations fill nearly 900 pages with standards that determine everything from rear-view mirror and steering wheel placement to the shape of vehicles and the exact placement of seats. Many of the rules don't make sense in the coming era of self-driving cars. Autonomous vehicles don't need rear-view mirrors, or (eventually) steering wheels. Their ideal physical form is still a work in progress. But an even bigger rethink is in order. As motor vehicles become essentially computers on wheels, software, not hardware, will soon be paramount for safety. This will make most government regulation unnecessary, and, to the extent that it slows innovation, could even cost lives on the highway. "Basically, the entire vehicle code can be boiled down to be safe and don't unfairly get in the way of other people," says Brad Templeton, an entrepreneur and software architect, who has worked as a consultant with Google on its self-driving car project. (He also blogs regularly on the topic.) One difference between self-driving cars and traditional automobiles is that companies will have every incentive to fix safety problems immediately. With today's cars, that hasn't always been the case. Templeton cites General Motors' 2014 recall of 800,000 cars with faulty ignition switches. The company knew about the safety flaw over a decade prior, but didn't act on the information because recalls are so costly. The companies actions had dire consequences: One-hundred-and-twenty-four deaths were linked to the ignition defect. But the safety problems of the future will primarily be bugs in software not hardware, so they'll be fixed by sending ones and zeros over the internet without the need for customers to return hundreds of thousands of vehicles to the manufacturer. "Replacing software is free," Templeton says, "so there's no reason to hold back on fixing something." Another difference is that when hardware was all that mattered for safety, regulators could inspect a car and determine if it met safety standards. With software, scrutiny of this sort may be impossible because the leading self-driving car companies (including Waymo and Tesla) are developing their systems through a process called machine learning that "doesn't mesh in with traditional methods of regulation," Templeton says. Machine learning is developed organically, so humans have limited understanding of how the system actually works. And that makes governments nervous. Regulations passed by the European Union last year ban so-called unknowable artificial intelligence. Templeton fears that our desire to understand and control the underlying system could lead regulators to prohibit the use of machine learning technologies. "If it turns out that [machine learning systems] do a better job [on safety] but we don't know why," says Templeton, "we'll be in a situation of deliberately deploying the thing that's worse because we feel a little more comfortable that we understand it." John Simpson from the California-based nonprofit Consumer Watchdog, who advocates stringent regulation of autonomous vehicles, says extreme caution is warranted because software in cars isn't like software in other contexts. "It's one thing to test Gmail in beta mode," he told Reason, "and software that when it glitches actually might kill you." "That these need to be perfect before we can allow them on the road is a mindset that has affected a lot of urban planners and...the pro-regulation set," says Marc Scribner, a senior fellow at the free-market think tank the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Since the alternative to allowing imperfect self-driving cars on the highways is the status quo—100 Americans die every day in automobile crashes—perfection shouldn't be the standard. "Delaying self-driving car technology," Scribner says, "means we're going to see additional deaths that we simply could have avoided if we allowed these vehicles on the road that ar[...]

Super Hacker George Hotz: I Can Make Your Car Drive Itself for Under $1,000

Fri, 27 Oct 2017 16:15:00 -0400

George Hotz, known online as GeoHot, became one of the world's most famous hackers at 17 when he was the first person to break into the iPhone and reconfigure it to be compatible with providers other than AT&T. He was also the first to jailbreak the PlayStation 3, allowing users to play with unauthorized software. Now this 28-year-old technical wunderkind is up against Waymo, Tesla, Uber, and most of the auto industry in the race to build the first fully operational autonomous vehicle. "I want to win self-driving cars," Hotz told Reason. Whereas Tesla and Waymo are developing complex systems with expensive LIDAR and other sensors, his company,, is trying to bring plug-and-play driverless technology to the masses. "We're running it on a phone," says Hotz. He's taking an approach drastically different than his well-financed competition, and is operating with $3.1 million in seed money. Comma's dozen-member team, which works out of a residential house in San Francisco, has built technology that takes over the existing RADAR and drive-by-wire systems in modern cars, incorporates a smartphone's camera and processor, and then makes the car drive itself. "Google is going to lose because there's no market for a $100,000 system," says Hotz. "For us, we're just going to push the software update. And then—boom—you don't have to pay attention anymore. Done." Hotz has a history of taking on tech titans, with mixed reactions. After the iPhone jailbreak, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak sent him a letter of congratulations. After he hacked the PS3, Sony sued him. Hotz quickly became a cause celebre of so-called hacktivist groups including Anonymous and LulzSec. They attacked Sony's network, despite Hotz's protests, igniting a firestorm of legal and media scrutiny. is Hotz's attempt to take on the big players in a new way. The company makes an app called Chiffr that turns a user's phone into a dashcam and monitors its GPS and accelerometers. Now Comma is launching Panda, an open source, $88 dongle that plugs into the car, links it to the phone, and puts out fine-grain detail about every aspect of a drive. Hotz ingests all the data from Chiffr and Panda users and feeds it to his artificial intelligence system, which then learns how to drive. According to Hotz, this approach gives him significant advantages over competitors such as Waymo. His network is entirely crowdsourced and running on some of the most popular cars in the country. He doesn't need to build another expensive, specially designed vehicle and employ a trained driver and an engineer every time he wants to add another data point. And all his data come from real-world experience. Hotz says Waymo and others take a rule-based approach to driving that doesn't reflect the reality of how people operate cars. "The humans ain't changing to match the self-driving spec," he says. "In order to really get access to the full, diverse spectrum of what driving is, you need a huge crowdsourced database." While Tesla's training model is more closely aligned with his, Hotz says the company will similarly be restricted to the high-end market. He got into a public spat with Tesla founder Elon Musk in 2015, after Hotz says the mogul changed the terms of a deal for him to build a better vision system for Tesla's Autopilot than the one supplied by partner company Mobileye. Musk claims Hotz bragged that he could build a better system, and then welched on the bet. "All I said was I could build a better vision system than Mobileye, myself, in 3 months," replies Hotz. "And I kind of did that." Despite his new gig, however, Hotz maintains a hacker's spirit. He has a bounty program that pays out $10,000 to customers who are able to port Comma's software and enable it to tap into their car's driving systems. Hotz, however, denies that this constitutes hacking, even though he offers the bounty instead of contacting carmakers[...]

Regular Cars Didn't Need Federal Regulation; Neither Do Driverless Vehicles

Mon, 31 Jul 2017 14:15:00 -0400

A senator once asked the head of Google's self-driving vehicle program what sort of legislation was needed to help his industry. "What we have found in most places is that the best action is to take no action," he replied, adding that "in general the technology can be safely tested today on roads in many states." Last week a congressional committee ignored that advice and took action. In a bipartisan vote of 54–0, the House Energy and Commerce Committee has now forwarded the SELF DRIVE Act* for consideration by the full House of Representatives. (The Senate is working on similar legislation.) The bill's goal is to set up a national regulatory framework to encourage the development and deployment of autonomous passenger vehicles. But why does Congress need to get involved with autonomous vehicle development at all? After all, between 1900 and 1965 automakers managed to put tens of millions of non-self-driving vehicles on the road - some 90 million by the mid-1960s - with essentially no interference from the federal government. The federal government didn't really get into the automobile regulation business until Congress created the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) in 1966. The immediate impetus behind the push to create the new federal automobile safety agency was the publication of Ralph Nader's Unsafe At Any Speed: The Designed Dangers of the American Automobile, which claimed that GM's Corvair had a tendency to roll and therefore was a "one-car accident." In 1972, the very agency that Nader's alarmism conjured into existence issued a report finding that the "Corvair compares favorably with contemporary vehicles used in the tests...the handling and stability performance of the 1960–63 Corvair does not result in an abnormal potential for loss of control or rollover, and it is at least as good as the performance of some contemporary vehicles both foreign and domestic." In other words, federal automobile regulation was founded on activist misinformation. Prior to 1966, automobiles somehow got fitted with such safety equipment as windshield wipers, headlights, and turn signals without federal intervention. (In 1939, Buick became the first U.S. automaker to offer factory-installed flashing turn signals.) Industry standards were generally devised not by bureaucrats but by the Society of Automotive Engineers. On the postive side, the SELF DRIVE Act would preempt states from adopting their own rules for regulating "highly automated vehicles, automated driving systems, or components of automated driving systems." A year ago, the California Department of Motor Vehicles proposed a draft regulation that would require all self-driving cars to have steering wheels, pedals, and a licensed, specially trained driver in the front seat. Fortunately, the agency recently backed off those requirements. Nevertheless, 20 states have passed legislation related to autonomous vehicles and 33 states have introduced yet more such legislation this year. But that's not all the bill would do. Among other things, it directs the secretary of transportation to issue within 24 months a final rule requiring autonomous vehicle manufacturers to submit safety assessment certifications; creates a Highly Automated Vehicle Advisory Council to undertake information-gathering activities, develop technical advice, and present best practices or recommendations to the Transportation Secretary; requires manufacturers to devise and submit cybersecurity plans; and prohibits manufacturers from selling highly automated vehicles until they have developed privacy plans with respect to the collection, use, sharing, and storage of information about vehicle owners and occupants. Perplexingly, the bill also protects state automobile dealer franchise laws that ban direct sales of cars. Since most autonomous vehicles will likely be operated as robotaxis, dea[...]

This Massachusetts Lawmaker Wants to Throw Folks in Prison for Having Secret Car Compartments

Thu, 06 Jul 2017 13:10:00 -0400

A hidden compartment in your car (or plane, or boat) could land you at least two years in prison in Massachusetts if a lawmaker gets his way. Blame it on the war on drugs and pressure from law enforcement lobbying. Stephan Hay, a Democrat state representative for Fitchburg, has introduced a bill that would criminalize operating a vehicle with a hidden compartment designed for the purpose of secretly transporting drugs and related contraband, equipment, currency, or weapons. The bill, H.1266, separately criminalizes the process of altering a vehicle with the intent of creating such hidden compartments. In each case the bill calls for a two-year mandatory minimum sentence, five years for subsequent offenses. The bill also allows police to seize the modified vehicle. The bill does not require that there actually be contraband in the hidden compartment, only that a person's "intent" is to use it to transport illicit goods. Then there's this clarification in the section authorizing forfeiture: Proof that a conveyance contains a hidden compartment as defined in this section shall be prima facie evidence that the conveyance was used intended for use in and for the business of unlawfully manufacturing, dispensing, or distributing controlled substances. The bill defines a "hidden compartment" as any concealable storage space added to a vehicle after its purchase. The quoted section means that a defendant accused of violating this law is put in the position of having to prove a negative—that the compartment isn't intended to transport drugs. Ohio has a similar law on the books already, and we saw the dangerous consequences in 2013. Norman Gurley was stopped by state troopers, who noticed some wires in the vehicle he was driving and discovered the car had a secret compartment. They found absolutely no drugs but arrested him anyway and charged him with violating Ohio's law against secret compartments. Gurley's story quickly became national news, then faded as quickly as is it arrived. (Gurley's attorney, Myron Watson, did not return a call from Reason to find out what ultimately happened with the case. UPDATE: A reader directed me to the online case file and Gurley is set for a jury trial in December of this year, so it hasn't been resolved yet.) Now that his story is long forgotten, Massachusetts lawmakers are pushing their own version of a law that was criticized for violating due process, not to mention property rights. According to the State House News Service, Massachusetts state police officials are very much on board and are openly supporting the legislation. Their support should come as no surprise, given that the law will allow police to keep any vehicle they seize. According to the property-rights-defending experts at the Institute for Justice, Massachusetts has the worst civil asset forfeiture laws in the country. Law enforcement officials need only reach the threshold of probable cause (the same threshold used to justify a search warrant) that somebody's property or money is connected to a crime in order to seize it. The state doesn't have to prove a citizen's guilt to keep the property; the citizen must prove his innocence to get it back. And under Massachusetts law, police get to keep 100 percent of what they seize, a huge financial incentive to claim that anyone they pull over and search is connected to the drug trade—at least if he has any possessions of value. Police in Massachusetts already rake in millions of dollars a year from forfeitures. This bill would compound the problem. And it could send people to prison for drug crimes even if no one finds so much as a single joint or fentanyl tablet in their possession.[...]

Let Driverless Car Innovators—Not Bureaucrats—Work Out Security, Privacy Issues

Wed, 14 Jun 2017 08:30:00 -0400

When most people think about driverless car policies, they tend to focus on philosophical life-or-death scenarios. This isn't surprising: The question of how autonomous vehicles should behave when faced with the unfortunate decision between harming a passenger and harming a pedestrian is an eye-catching one indeed. But many of the policy concerns surrounding robot cars are far more prosaic. How much data will connected cars collect, and how will this be stored? Will the data be secure? How secure? How will software be maintained and improved? Will the code be viewable by outsiders? And just who should oversee the whole process? At the end of the month, regulators at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will hold a policy workshop to discuss just these issues. On June 28, policy experts, academics, industry representatives, and the general public are invited to take part in a conversation on "the consumer privacy and security issues that automated and connected vehicles" may pose. Rather than worrying about the typical questions of physical safety and accident liabilities involving autonomous cars, this workshop will focus mostly on the cybersecurity and data integrity of autonomous car software. There is considerable disagreement in the policy space about how to proceed. At the core of the debate is the question of how seamlessly car companies can adapt to the new pressures of maintaining secure software. Car manufacturers have had decades of experience testing their vehicles to minimize physical safety risks as much as possible. But as cars become more automated, these companies will have to act more like software firms. These days, GM and Ford and Chrysler need to be as comfortable with beta testing and encryption as they are with test tracks and crash dummies. Critics believe that car companies are simply not up to snuff on security. They do not think that auto manufacturers will be able to provide secure and transparent autonomous car software without some kind of government mandate or pre-market approval process. Computer security expert Bruce Schneier is a leading advocate of this position. In a recent article for the New York Times, Schneier argues that there is no market incentive for car manufacturers and other businesses involved in the "Internet of Things" (IOT) gold rush to care about good security. He thinks the government should mandate that companies integrate certain software features by default, and advocates that software developers be held liable for vulnerabilities in the code. (As a point of fact, the FTC already investigates IOT firms for "unfair and deceptive practices" with insecure products, but Schneier and others want to significantly expand the liability burden for software businesses.) There are legislative efforts underway as well. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) has made connected car security into somewhat of a congressional bugaboo for the past few years. He first produced a sensationalist report on the topic in 2015, which was heavy on hysterics but notably light on any real examples of the hacking threats to connected cars. Markey then teamed up with Senator Richard Blumenthal to introduce the "SPY Car Act" later that year. The bill would vaguely require companies to equip "all entry points to the electronic systems" of cars sold in the US with "reasonable measures to protect against hacking attacks" while requiring sellers to append a "cyber dashboard" with security features on each car. The bill failed, having generated expected opposition from auto manufacturers for its "cumbersome and static" approach, but Markey released another version of the bill this year. Yet these kinds of arguments are little different than the typical anti-market rhetoric used to justify all kinds of backwards regulat[...]

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 N[...]

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

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

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 mos[...]

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.[...]