Google Maps already tracks you; now other people can, too

As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle:

Google Maps users will soon be able to broadcast their movements to friends and family — the latest test of how much privacy people are willing to sacrifice in an era of rampant sharing.

The location-monitoring feature will begin rolling out Wednesday in an update to the Google Maps mobile app, which is already installed on most of the world’s smartphones. It will also be available on personal computers.

Google believes the new tool will be a more convenient way for people to let someone know where they are without having to text or call them. The Mountain View, California, company has set up the controls so individuals can decide with whom they want to share their whereabouts and for how long — anywhere from a few minutes to indefinitely.

But location sharing in one of the world’s most popular apps could cause friction in marriages and other relationships if one partner demands to know where the other is at all times. Similar tensions could arise if parents insist their teenagers turn on the location-sharing option before they go out. …

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CA Jurors Misusing the Internet Could Face Fines

As reported by ABC7:

But that may soon change in California. Legislation supported by state court officials would authorize judges in some counties to fine jurors up to $1,500 for social media and Internet use violations, which have led to mistrials and overturned convictions around the country.

As jurors and judges have become more technology savvy in recent years, the perils of jurors playing around with their smartphones have become a mounting concern, particularly in technology-rich California. A 2011 state law made improper electronic or wireless communication or research by a juror punishable by contempt.

Supporters of the latest California measure say a potential fine would …

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Thoughtless Bureaucrats and Driverless Cars

google car2California’s Legislature set out in 2012 “to encourage the current and future development, testing and operation of autonomous vehicles on the public roads of the state” — but now, the state is poised effectively to ban such cars from the roads and highways. The Department of Motor Vehicles held a public workshop in Sacramento in late January and another in Los Angeles in early February to discuss draft regulations for autonomous vehicles. Though the rules won’t be finalized before the end of the year, the news so far isn’t good — for the cars. Under the cover of “consumer protection,” the DMV proposes to limit the rollout of autonomous technology by, among other things, barring its commercial use, precluding truly autonomous operation, and prohibiting private sale and ownership of self-driving cars.

The DMV is best known for ensuring that 16-year-olds are minimally competent behind the wheel of traditional motor vehicles; it has no particular expertise in evaluating the appropriateness of vehicle-safety requirements. But that hasn’t stopped the department from imposing an excess of caution on the approval of autonomous-vehicle technology. The idea of cars or trucks operating without steering wheels or human drivers is exciting to entrepreneurs and commuters. Google’s autonomous car would have no steering wheel, or even pedals. A delivery service such as Google Express would likely roll out without drivers. Uber is researching how to replace drivers as well. Shipping and logistics companies also envision a future when goods move from harbors to warehouses in autonomous trucks. More than a dozen disabled activists appeared at the hearing in Los Angeles to urge the DMV to allow purely autonomous vehicles, saying they would be a boon for people, such as the blind, who are incapable of driving right now. But the idea is terrifying to bureaucrats and regulators. The DMV’s smothering — and costly — approach will likely become state policy, squelching such innovations.

Keeping driverless cars off the streets is one thing; why ban their sale entirely? DMV chief information officer Bernard Soriano said last month that because the proposed rules would place a three-year limit on the use of approved vehicles, buyers likely wouldn’t receive much benefit over such a short period of ownership. Furthermore, the DMV believes that by prohibiting sales, the rules would protect early adopters of the technology from being stuck with vehicles that are later deemed unsafe by the department. Finally, the DMV maintains that leased vehicles, which remain under the ownership of the vehicle manufacturer, will be easier to collect data from.

The first of the rationales is the most compelling, but only compared with the others. With only three years before retirement, a purchased vehicle’s value — much of it traditionally recouped in its resale — would be destroyed by these regulations. The rule would shift a greater financial burden onto manufacturers and all but guarantee that the only people able to afford early vehicles, even by leasing them, will be wealthy. If anything, the three-year sunset requirement is itself a constructive ban on ownership, which makes the DMV’s second rationale irrelevant. If a small, wealthy segment of the population is aware of the state’s strictures and doesn’t mind temporarily possessing a vehicle that’s doomed by law, it can certainly afford the risk. The state’s supposed desire to protect these people from loss seems at once unnecessary and disingenuous.

The DMV’s third and final rationale — compliance with reporting requirements—is even more poorly conceived. As with every vehicle sold today, the manufacturer, for better or worse, controls the technology used and the data it produces. When you buy or lease a car, you sign a contract that says so explicitly. So the DMV would have access to any safety data it likes, regardless of whether the “owner” is the manufacturer or the end user.

Without question, prohibiting private sale and ownership of self-driving cars and trucks would destroy value and raise costs. Google has already threatened to take its autonomous vehicle business elsewhere. Given that outcome, the DMV’s justifications simply don’t hold up. So why would the DMV push prohibition with such gusto? Why would the state pursue policies to discourage the adoption of vehicles that, by virtually all accounts, would be orders of magnitude safer than traditionally operated vehicles? And, how does a department charged with enacting the will of the legislature land so far afield of the legislature’s stated goal of creating a legal framework that promotes autonomous vehicles? Very simply, lawmakers deferred too much authority to a bureaucracy, and California’s motorists will pay the price.

New Legislation Targets Encrypted CA Smartphones

cellphonesA worldwide controversy over whether to ban encrypted smartphones has opened a new front in California, where lawmakers introduced legislation that would crack down on the devices.

Assembly Bill 1681, introduced by Assemblyman Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove, would mandate that phones made “on or after January 1, 2017, and sold in California after that date” must be “capable of being decrypted and unlocked by its manufacturer or its operating system provider,” as CNET reported. “Any smartphone that couldn’t be decrypted on demand would subject a seller to a $2,500 fine. If the bill becomes law, there would be a ban on nearly all iPhones and many devices that run Google’s Android software across the state.”

With California home to both Google and Apple, observers quickly declared a broadening trend toward increased legal pressure on tech companies. But competing justifications for the crackdown have emerged, with lawmakers outside California opting to hang their own legislation on a different peg. As Ars Technica remarked of AB1681:

Despite very similar language to a pending New York bill, the stated rationale is to fight human trafficking, rather than terrorism.

AB1681’s language is nearly identical to another bill re-introduced in New York state earlier this month, but Cooper denied that it was based on any model legislation, saying simply that it was researched by his staff. He also noted that the sale of his own iPhone would be made illegal in California under this bill.

World worry

California policymakers have become an intimate part of the global push to prevent smartphone encryption from helping individuals and groups evade law enforcement monitoring and detection. At the Davos Open Forum, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., joined an international panel of public and private-sector officials to air concerns about the potential for over- or under-enforcement. “Governments claim the need for greater security and seek to monitor global communications, while citizens, more willing than ever to share, demand greater protection of their digital privacy,” according to Vice News, whose editor in chief moderated the discussion.

In the U.S., meanwhile, top law enforcement officials have sought to coordinate a nationwide effort patterned after California’s and New York’s, each of which drew support from its respective Attorneys General. “The National District Attorney’s Association hasn’t hidden its intention to mobilize its local offices,” according to The Verge. “The association, along with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, announced in November that they planned to partner with state legislators to enact mandatory smartphone decryption bills around the country. The group wrote in a letter that it looked ‘forward to working with lawmakers to strengthen our current laws, and ensure they are representative of today’s technology and the challenge public safety officials face in preventing crime and safeguarding their communities.’”

An uphill battle

But pushback has already begun from within the crypto and tech communities. On the one hand, advocates and activists have long warned against granting governments a so-called “backdoor” to the data and metadata stored on devices and accessible through them. “There have been people that suggest that we should have a backdoor,” Apple CEO Tim Cook recently said on “60 Minutes,” as the Silicon Valley Business Journal noted. “But the reality is if you put a backdoor in, that backdoor’s for everybody, for good guys and bad guys.”

On the other hand, however, going further, “legal and technical experts argue that even if a national ban on fully encrypted smartphones were a reasonable privacy sacrifice for the sake of law enforcement, a state-level ban wouldn’t be,” as Wiredobserved. “They say, the most likely result of any state banning the sale of encrypted smartphones would be to make the devices of law-abiding residents’ more vulnerable, while still letting criminals obtain an encrypted phone with a quick trip across the state border or even a trivial software update.” For that reason, both the California and New York bills face an uphill climb, despite strong pressure to pass them — or some version of them — into law.

Originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Is Apple Ready To Jump Into Electric Car Market?

appleCalifornia was poised to make automotive history again as Apple met with the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. As the Golden State grapples with divisive choices over emissions regulations, electric and self-driving cars have emerged as the latest home-grown innovation with big political stakes.

The move put the self-driving car under development by the tech titan — codename: Project Titan — at the center of a flurry of speculation, opinion and analysis. Citing documents it had obtained, the Guardian reported that Mike Maletic, a senior legal counsel, “had an hour-long meeting on 17 August with the department’s self-driving car experts Bernard Soriano, DMV deputy director, and Stephanie Dougherty, chief of strategic planning, who are co-sponsors of California’s autonomous vehicle regulation project, and Brian Soublet, the department’s deputy director and chief counsel.”

Alongside Google and Uber, that makes three Silicon Valley heavyweights lined up to crank out driverless cars at some point in the future, the Guardian added, noting “Google already has a fleet of robot cars on the streets of California and is planning to have several hundred built in the near future.”

Critical mass

But the competition in driverless cars has already heated up around the world. “According to the California DMV,” Fast Company noted, “their autonomous vehicle program has issued permits for testing to Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, Tesla, Nissan, BMW, and Honda, along with Google and auto component manufacturers Delphi, Bosch, and Cruise Automation.” That program, begun at the start of this year, “is working on ways to guarantee autonomous vehicles are safe, tested, and meet quality and performance benchmarks.”

The race to deploy a robocar has led those companies, plus Toyota, Ford, and GM, to line the Valley’s main thoroughfare with research laboratories. The Central Expressway, reaching roughly from Stanford University to San Jose Mineta International Airport, has become so crowded with competitors that Apple’s penchant for secrecy may be at risk if it takes its cars out for a neighborhood spin. “Although Apple recently bought a 43-acre parcel in North San Jose, it doesn’t have much room in Silicon Valley to test its automotive ideas with the secrecy that usually surrounds its tiny devices,” the San Jose Mercury News surmised. “The question is: Would it be willing to test in public?”

Busy rivals

Traffic in secrecy has run both ways, however. Whatever Apple has under wraps, the Mercury News concluded, “its actions have contributed to a frenzy from rivals — especially in the auto industry — to take ownership of autonomous technology, in-car mapping software, vehicle-to-vehicle communication and dashboard Internet applications that could reshape the way we get around in the decades to come.”

To vault to the top of the pack, however, Apple would likely have to square off against Tesla, which has enjoyed a substantial head start. “In the next few years, Tesla has the potential to become the Apple of electric cars, even if Apple enters the industry,” according to Quartz. “The company will have four models on the streets — the Roadster, the S, the X, and the 3 — by the time Apple or any other competitor is likely to have a single model. Tesla will also have its Gigafactory — a massive production facility in Nevada that can produce up to 500,000 cars a year — up and running. If Tesla can bring down its prices, its cars could become a common sight on roads.” Of course, Tesla has automotive rivals of its own, with Audi, Mercedes and Porsche all poised to deliver electric vehicles in about five years or so.

Meanwhile, few inside the auto industry have thrown in the towel on more traditional vehicles. “When it comes to actually making cars, there is no reason to assume that Apple, with no experience, will suddenly do a better job than General Motors, Ford, Volkswagen, Toyota, or Hyundai,” GM ex-chairman Bob Lutz told CNBC, predicting that Apple’s labors would become “a giant money pit.”

Originally published by CalWatchdog.com

If You Want a Job, Where Should You Move?

JobsSince the U.S. economy imploded in 2008, there’s been a steady shift in leadership in job growth among our major metropolitan areas. In the earliest years, the cities that did the best were those on the East Coast that hosted the two prime beneficiaries of Washington’s resuscitation efforts, the financial industry and the federal bureaucracy. Then the baton was passed to metro areas riding the boom in the energy sector, which, if not totally dead in its tracks, is clearly weaker.

Right now, job creation momentum is the strongest in tech-oriented metropolises and Sun Belt cities with lower costs, particularly the still robust economies of Texas.

Topping our annual ranking of the best big cities for jobs are the main metro areas of Silicon Valley: the San Francisco-Redwood City-South San Francisco Metropolitan Division, followed by San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, swapping their positions from last year.

Our rankings are based on short-, medium- and long-term job creation, going back to 2003, and factor in momentum — whether growth is slowing or accelerating. We have compiled separate rankings for America’s 70 largest metropolitan statistical areas (those with nonfarm employment over 450,000), which are our focus this week, as well as medium-size metro areas (between 150,000 and 450,000 nonfarm jobs) and small ones (less than 150,000 nonfarm jobs) in order to make the comparisons more relevant to each category. (For a detailed description of our methodology, click here.)

An Economy Fit For Geeks

Venture capital and private-equity firms keep pouring money into U.S. technology companies, lured by the promise of huge IPO returns. Last year was the best for new stock offerings since the peak of the dot-com bubble, with 71 biotech IPOs and 55 tech IPOs. It’s continuing to fuel strong job creation in Silicon Valley. Employment expanded 4.8% in the San Francisco Metropolitan Division in 2014, which includes the job-rich suburban expanses of San Mateo to the south, and employment is up 21.2% since 2009. This has been paced by growth in professional business services jobs in the area, up 9% last year, and in information jobs, which includes many social media functions – information employment expanded 8.3% last year and is up 28.7% since 2011.

San Jose which, like San Francisco, was devastated in the tech crash a decade ago, has also rebounded smartly. The San Jose MSA clocked 4.9% job growth last year and 20.0% since 2009. Employment in manufacturing, once the heart of the local economy, has grown 8% since 2011, after a decade of sharp reversals, but the number of information jobs there has exploded, up 16% last year and 35.7% since 2011.

Meanwhile, there’s been a striking reversal of fortune in the greater Washington, D.C., area, while the greater New York area has also fallen off the pace. In the years after the crash, soaring federal spending pushed Washington-Arlington-Alexandria to as high as fifth on our annual list of the best cities for jobs; this year it’s a meager 47th, with job growth of 1.5% in 2014, following meager 0.2% growth in 2013, while Northern Virginia (50th) and Silver Spring-Frederick-Rockville (64th) also lost ground, dropping, respectively, five and 15 places.

Job growth has also slowed in the greater New York region, which also was an early star performer in the immediate aftermath of the recession, in part due to the bank bailout that consolidated financial institutions in their strongest home region. Virtually all the areas that make up greater New York have lost ground in our ranking: the New York City MSA has fallen to 17th place from seventh last year, as employment growth tailed off to 2.6% in 2014 from 3.2% in 2013. Meanwhile Nassau-Suffolk ranks 49th, Rockland-Westchester 60th and Newark is second from the bottom among the biggest metro areas in 69th place.

The Shift To ‘Opportunity Cities’ Continues

Not every tech hot spot has the Bay Area’s advantages, which include venture capital, the presence of the world’s top technology companies and a host of people with the know-how to start and grow companies.

But other metro areas have something Silicon Valley lacks: affordable housing. Most of the rest of our top 15 metro areas have far lower home prices than the Bay Area, or for that matter Boston, Los Angeles or New York. And they also have experienced strong job growth, often across a wider array of industries, which provides opportunities for a broader portion of the population.

The combination of lower prices and strong job opportunities are what earns them our label of “opportunity cities.” The Bay Area may attract many of the best and brightest, but it is too expensive for most. Despite the current boom, the area’s population growth has been quite modest — San Jose has had an average population growth rate of 1.5% over the past four years. In contrast, seven of our top 10 metro areas, including third place Dallas-Plano-Irving, Texas, and No. 4 Austin, Texas, are also in the top 10 in terms of population growth since 2000. If prices and costs are reasonable, people will go to places where work is most abundant.

In the Dallas metro area, the job count grew 4.2% last year, paced by an 18.6% expansion in professional business services, while overall employment is up 15.7% since 2009. Job growth last year in Austin, Texas, was a healthy 3.9%, while the information sector expanded by 4.7% and since 2011 by 17.8%.

Many Texas cities, of course, have benefited from the energy boom — the recent downturn in oil prices make it likely that growth, particularly in No. 6 Houston, will decelerate in coming years.

But what is most remarkable about the top-performing cities is the diversity of their economies. Most have tech clusters, but several, such as Houston, Nashville, Tenn., Dallas and Charlotte, N.C., have growing manufacturing, trade, transportation and business services sectors. The immediate prognosis, however, may be brightest in places like Denver and Orlando, where growth is less tied to energy than business services, trade and tourism. Nashville, which places fifth on our list, has particularly bright prospects, due not only to its growing tech and manufacturing economy, but also its strong health care sector which, according to one recent study, contributes an overall economic benefit of nearly $30 billion annually and more than 210,000 jobs to the local economy.

The Also-Rans

Some economies lower in our rankings have made strong improvements, notably Atlanta-Sandy Spring-Roswell, which rose to 12th this year, a jump of 12 places. Long a star performer, the Georgia metro area stumbled through the housing bust, but it appears to have regained its footing, with strong job growth across a host of fields from manufacturing and information to health, and particularly business services, a category in which employment has increased 24% since 2009.

In California, one big turnaround story has been the Riverside-San Bernardino area, which gained six places to rank 11th this year as it has again begun to benefit from migration caused by coastal Southern California’s impossibly high home prices.

Several mid-American metro areas also are showing strong improvement. Louisville-Jefferson County, Ky., jumped fifteen places to 21st, propelled by strong growth in manufacturing, business services and finance. Kansas City, Kan. (23rd), and Kansas City, Mo. (46th), both made double-digit jumps in our rankings. In Michigan, Detroit-Dearborn-Livonia, bolstered by the recovery of the auto industry, gained six places to 59th, while manufacturing hub Warren-Troy-Farmington Hills picked up two to 39th. These may not be high growth areas, but these metro area no longer consistently sit at the bottom of the list.

Losing Ground

One of the biggest resurgent stars in past rankings, New Orleans-Metairie, dropped 17 places to 43rd, while Oklahoma City fell 17 places to 33rd. These cities lack the economic diversity to withstand a long-term loss of energy jobs if the sector goes into a prolonged downturn.

Yet perhaps the most troubling among the also-rans are the metro areas that have remained steadily at the bottom. These are largely Rust Belt cities such as last place Camden, N.J., which has been at or near that position for years.

Future Prospects

Now the best prospects appear to be in tech-heavy regions, but it’s important to recognize that a key contributor to the tech sector’s frenzy of venture capital and IPOs had been the Federal Reserve’s unprecedented monetary interventions, which are now phasing out. As it is, headwinds to expansion in the Bay Area are strong. High housing prices, according to recent study, may make it very difficult for these companies to expand their local workforces. The median price of houses in tech suburbs like Los Gatos now stand at nearly $2 million — rich for all but a few — while downtown Palo Alto office rents have risen an impossible 43% in the last five years.

Companies like Google, which has run into opposition over its proposed new headquarters expansion, may choose to shift more employment to other tech centers, such as Austin, Denver, Seattle, Raleigh and Salt Lake City, where the cost of doing business tends to be less. Similarly the stronger dollar could erode the modest progress made by some industrial cities, such as Detroit and Warren, as it gives a strong advantage to foreign competitors.

Normally we would expect these processes to play out slowly. But in these turbulent times, it’s best to keep an eye out for disruptive changes — a new economic cataclysm, should one occur, could quickly shift the playing field once again.

Joel Kotkin is editor of NewGeography.com and Presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and Michael Shires is Associate Professor of Public Policy, Pepperdine University

Cross-posted at New Geography and Fox and Hounds Daily

Self-Driving Cars Getting Dinged Up on CA Roads

google carGoogle admitted that its self-driving cars had racked up some dings on California’s streets, prompting a flurry of interest and caution among analysts closely watching the tech giant’s foray onto American roads. Reported NBC News:

“Four of the nearly 50 self-driving cars now rolling around California have gotten into accidents since September, when the state began issuing permits for companies to test them on public roads. Two accidents happened while the cars were in control; in the other two, the person who still must be behind the wheel was driving, a person familiar with the accident reports told The Associated Press.”

Setting standards

The relatively minor news provoked outsized attention, especially in California, because of the way self-driving cars heighten the tension between public issues of safety and transparency. “The fact that neither the companies nor the state have revealed the accidents,” noted the AP, “troubles some who say the public should have information to monitor the rollout of technology that its own developers acknowledge is imperfect.”

On the other hand, the layer of secrecy involved in the incidents came courtesy of California’s own pro-privacy regulations. “In half of the fender benders,” Endgaget reported, “the cars were in control when the accident occurred, and all of them happened at speeds of under 10 MPH.” None resulted in injuries; because of “the state’s privacy laws, the report doesn’t indicate any further details — like if they happened while backing out of a parking space, for example.”

The head of Google’s automated car program, Chris Urmson, emphasized that Google’s cars encountered just 11 accidents over 6 years and nearly 1 million miles on the road. Ironically, he suggested, the real lack of transparency that should concern drivers is the uncertainty surrounding the nature of unreported accidents with little damage and no injuries: “according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data, these incidents account for 55 percent of all crashes. It’s hard to know what’s really going on out on the streets unless you’re doing miles and miles of driving every day.”

Self-driving trucks

Meanwhile, across the border in Nevada, Daimler Trucks North America became the first to license a self-driving big rig this week in Nevada, as USA Today reported:

“Four of the experimental Freightliner trucks — Freightliner is a Daimler unit — drove around Nevada for a total of 10,000 miles over six months, says Steve Nadig, the chief engineer on the project.”

Self driving truckIn addition to a test track in Germany, Daimler sent out two trucks on “quiet public roads in Nevada,” according to Wired. “To earn the autonomous vehicle license plate from Nevada, Daimler needed to prove the system could safely cover 10,000 miles on its own.”

In a Las Vegas press conference, Daimler board member Wolfgang Bernhard depicted the trucks as a step ahead of self-driving cars in safety, desirability and economic impact. But Bernhard conceded that the trucks wouldn’t hit commercial viability until “enough U.S. states allow them on their roads to make inter-state commerce viable,” as Reuters summarized his remarks.

Despite the regulatory challenges and red tape involved in licensing self-driving trucks, said Bernhard, California — along with nearby Arizona and auto-centric Michigan — “had shown an interest in self-driving trucks, but more states would need to get on board before the federal government took up the issue.”

Analysts did quickly flag one big economic difference between self-driving cars and trucks: jobs. Whereas switching to automated cars wouldn’t necessary eliminate jobs, automated trucks would eventually render truckers increasingly obsolete. “The trucking industry constantly struggles to find enough drivers, even when unemployment is high,” noted Vox. “And the cost of a machine operating a vehicle will be dramatically cheaper than the cost of a human.”

Originally published on CalWatchdog.com

Hillary Clinton buoyed by Bay Area donors, tech talent and goodwill

As reported by the San Jose Mercury News:

Not many candidates can draw more than 10,000 people into the Bay Area’s streets for a campaign rally, but two did so eight years ago — one of them is now president, and the other is running to succeed him.

As Hillary Clinton officially begins her quest for the White House by courting voters this week in Iowa, her campaign will feel a westward tug toward the money, technology and brainpower in the Bay Area. For months, Clinton supporters have been holding fundraisers and scouting Silicon Valley talent.

Days before Sunday’s announcement that she was running for president, Clinton hired Stephanie Hannon, Google’s director of product management for civic innovation and social impact, as her campaign’s chief technology officer — probably the first of many local hires, if the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns are any measure. …

Click here to read the full article

Self-driving cars ready to hit CA roads

With remarkable speed, California’s top technologists have reached a breakthrough point in their development of automated cars. Automated vehicles from seven companies have hit Golden State freeways, with more to come.

Dramatizing the developments, one firm’s team of engineers and scientists recently kicked off a historic road trip in San Francisco, as the Bay Area’s ABC 7 reported:

“Engineers and cutting edge scientists from Delphi Automotive decked out a fleet of Audi SUVs with cameras, lasers, and radar all to teach the nearly $53,000 luxury car to drive itself … on a history-making cross-country trip from San Francisco to New York. It’ll cover 3,500 miles in about 10 days.”

Although Delphi has focused on achieving automated travel by applying technology to cars made elsewhere, Google and Tesla have reached an advanced stage in automated cars constructed with their own software and hardware.

The firms have concentrated on two basic types of transportation. Some work has centered around “self-driving” technology, wherein the person behind the wheel would not have to operate the car in order for it to drive. Other efforts have pursued “driverless” technology. More radical than self-driving, driverless technology would free travelers from having to occupy a driver’s position at all.

Self-driving, but not driverless

Tesla chief Elon Musk raised eyebrows with an announcement that went beyond driverless cars. Musk revealed that, this summer, “a software update — not a repair performed by a mechanic — would give Tesla’s Model S sedans the ability to start driving themselves, at least part of the time, in a hands-free mode that the company refers to as autopilot,” the New York Times reported.

Translation: Motorists would be able to experience “driverless” personal transportation in cars they already own or have access to.

Yet Musk’s remarks weren’t the first to put skeptics on notice that the future was coming whether they were ready or not. Google itself beat him to the punch earlier this year. According to the Times:

“Chris Urmson, director of self-driving cars at Google, raised eyebrows at a January event in Detroit when he said Google did not believe there was currently a ‘regulatory block’ that would prohibit self-driving cars, provided the vehicles themselves met crash-test and other safety standards.”

“A spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration responded at the time that ‘any autonomous vehicle would need to meet applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards’ and that the agency ‘will have the appropriate policies and regulations in place to ensure the safety of these types of vehicles.’”

Making drivers obsolete

In comments calculated to make headlines, Musk recently opined that, eventually, humans would be prohibited from driving by law for safety’s sake.

Some activists have maintained the opposite view. In a letter to the California DMV, Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog wrote:

“To express our concern that Google and others with a vested interest in developing ‘autonomous vehicle technology,’ also known as driverless cars, are pushing the Department of Motor Vehicles into promulgating rules regulating the public use of these vehicles on California’s highways that are inadequate to protect our safety. Safety issues are paramount, of course, but there are other substantial questions about privacy, data security and insurance that are also raised by driverless cars.”

Legislation

Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Senate Bill 1298. It formally legalized autonomous cars and required the DMV to “adopt regulations as soon as practicable,” no later than January of this year, “and to hold public hearings on the adoption of any regulation applicable to the operation of an autonomous vehicle without the presence of a driver inside the vehicle.”

But the DMV missed that deadline because of safety concerns. The Los Angeles Times editorial board tallied the public’s many fears associated with the loss of human control over cars:

“DMV has to grapple with more difficult questions. Should autonomous cars be allowed on the road with no one in them capable of taking the wheel — empty, perhaps, or with passengers in the back seat drinking or watching a movie? Should the vehicles be required to have steering wheels and pedals, or will a ‘stop’ button suffice? In theory, driverless cars could significantly reduce the number of collisions, as 90 percent of accidents are caused by human error. (The Google car won’t text and drive, for example.) What happens, however, if the car malfunctions or causes an accident? Would the carmaker be liable? Would the passenger be liable, even if he or she didn’t operate the vehicle?”

Evidently well aware of such concerns, Google recently obtained a patent for its driverless car that could see external airbags deployed to protect pedestrians from any unforeseen difficulties.

Originally published by CalWatchdog.com