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

CA Politicians Reach Into Transportation Funds, Ignore Crumbling Infrastructure

california roads infrastructureNow there is no question that road and bridge maintenance is lagging in the Golden State. Most counties have an average pavement rating of “at risk” or “poor” according to a finding by the California Transportation Commission. In addition to the safety hazards caused by poor road maintenance, there is a direct cost to the average California driver of hundreds of dollars for vehicle maintenance and tire wear.

Before assuming that that the Sacramento politicians are justified in seeking to dig deeper into drivers’ wallets, it is important to point out that billions in transportation tax dollars have been spent on other programs. State government has been diverting a billion dollars a year in annual truck weight fees to pay debt service on general obligation bonds and another $100 million annually in gas tax revenues to the general fund.

Now, in theory, all transportation tax revenues are to go for transportation purposes. Voters have passed several propositions they were assured would guarantee this result.

However, Sacramento has used slight-of-hand to divert these revenues. For example, after voters approved $20 billion in transportation bonds in 2006, bonds that were to be repaid from the general fund, officials later decided to use transportation tax revenue for bond repayment, freeing up general fund revenue for other purposes.

Some will argue that it is appropriate that transportation taxes repay transportation bonds, but voters were lead to believe the money would come from the general fund. When the state passes school bonds, they are repaid from the general fund.  When water bonds are passed, they too are repaid by the general fund. There is no reason transportation bonds should be different. By using transportation tax revenue to pay off bonds, there is not enough money left to maintain the improvements the bonds pay for.

Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff has a better idea that will slap the hands of those who have been reaching into the transportation tax cookie jar and diverting funds from road and bridge maintenance. Huff’s legislation, Senate Constitutional Amendment 7, would close the loopholes and stop this theft of transportation dollars. SCA 7 is the only plan in the Legislature that would provide funds to improve state roads and highways without raising taxes.

However don’t look for quick or easy passage of SCA 7. Its flaw? It does not require a tax increase and for the majority party in Sacramento, which is obsessed with extracting more money from taxpayers, this flaw is likely to be fatal.

It is hard to blame California drivers if they feel a like a lot like the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield who would complain, “I don’t get no respect.”

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. Originally posted on HJTA.

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

Gas Tax vs. Fee on Miles Driven

Seeking a creative and long-term solution for financing highway and road construction and upkeep, a new commission kicked off its investigation of a “Road User Charge” as a possible replacement for the well-traveled gasoline tax.

Created by 2014 legislation and given the nod by Governor Brown, the ponderously-named Road User Charge Pilot Program Technical Advisory Committee kicked off its deliberations last week. I am privileged to have been appointed one of of the committee’s 15 members, representing business and economic interests.

A confluence of forces continues to reduce the effectiveness of the gasoline tax as a stable revenue source for highways. Pegged to the amount of gasoline purchased, the tax could keep pace neither with inflation in construction costs or increased efficiency in automobile performance. CalTrans has estimated that inflation and improved vehicle efficiency has eroded more than 60 percent of the value of the gasoline tax since 1994. 

And this is before the ambitious roll-out of electric, plug-in hybrid and fuels cell vehicles in the state – which use little or no gasoline and therefore are the quintessential “free riders.”

In his inaugural address, Gov. Brown spoke of the “importance in having the roads, highways and bridges in good enough shape to get people and commerce to where they need to go,” estimating that the state has deferred maintenance and upkeep needs of $59 billion. In calling for a bipartisan solution for transportation finance, the Governor did not single out a mileage fee, but this option is certainly deeply in the mix.

The Advisory Committee has an ambitious agenda: within one year it must recommend how the state’s Transportation Agency can launch a pilot program testing a Road User Charge in real world circumstances. The committee will examine technical feasibility, reliability, implication for privacy rights, data security, motorist compliance, and overhead costs.

California will probably not break new policy ground on this project. The states of Oregon and Washington are already examining mileage fee alternatives, with Oregon on the verge of implementing a pilot project with 5,000 volunteer motorists. Findings from these other West Coast states will be invaluable for California’s consideration.

For more information on this effort and on the Technical Advisory Committee, visit this website at the California Transportation Commission.

Originally published on Fox and Hounds Daily

Elon Musk’s Hyperloop — Will It Become Reality?

Silicon Valley impresario Elon Musk’s Hyperloop transportation concept is back in the news. With a price tag that seemed daunting, especially when Musk warned he lacked the time to pursue the project, when it was advanced a year ago Hyperloop achieved little beyond sparking the imagination.

But now, Dirk Ahlborn, the head of his own California startup, has stepped forward to seize the initiative on making Musk’s super-fast trainlike vehicle a reality.

In a surprise for those outside the Silicon Valley bubble, Ahlborn recently announced  his JumpStartFund has the wherewithal to take Hyperloop off the drawing board and into reality. “I have almost no doubt that once we are finished, once we know how we are going to build and it makes economical sense, that we will get the funds,” he told Wired magazine.

Ahlborn predicts the effort will cost $16 billion and 10 years’ time, assuming a technical feasibility review planned for next year doesn’t reveal any insurmountable hurdles. In the meantime, JumpStartFund has “created the sub-company Hyperloop Transportation Technologies Inc. to develop the system,” relying on crowdfunding, crowdsourcing, and an improvised “collective” of engineers to move the ball forward, according to The Guardian.

Some 100 experts drawn from Boeing, NASA and Musk’s own SpaceX have been enlisted by JumpStartFund — and have already produced a 76-page memorandum laying out their vision for how the project can proceed.

Remarkably, JumpStartFund’s collective has “expanded on Musk’s concept and now envisions a huge interconnected Hyperloop system, spanning coast to coast and linking many of the U.S.’s major cities,” as Quartz reported.

Uncertain expectations

Back in August 2013, when Musk first revealed the Hyperloop concept, critics immediately dismissed its real-world applicability. Not only did supporters of California’s current high-speed rail project find reason for skepticism; analysts worried Musk had simply underestimated practical challenges like overheating, despite ballparking the cost of Hyperloop at somewhere around $10 billion.

Nevertheless, Musk’s track record of innovation attracted serious attention to the idea. Unlike a traditional train, Hyperloop would “send passengers hurtling through low-pressure tubes in ultra sleek pods at speeds of up to 800 miles per hour,” as CalWatchdog.com previously reported. “At that clip, a trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco would take a mere half hour. That’s two hours and eight minutes faster than California’s bullet train promises to make the 432-mile jaunt.”

Provocatively enough, from the very beginning, Musk envisioned California as Hyperloop’s home.

All told, the scheme created near-perfect conditions for a storm of media interest. Hyperloop was controversial without being outrageous, farfetched without being ridiculous, and — theoretically — competitive with one of California’s biggest and most fiercely challenged infrastructure projects in history.

But without direct funding and dedicated personnel, Hyperloop couldn’t begin the complex research and development that would lead to its construction. As media interest moved on, and Musk broke new ground with Tesla and other marquee projects, public expectations around Hyperloop moved to the back burner.

Privately, however, Hyperloop remained relevant to the kinds of people it would need to move forward.

A welcome surprise

For now, the Hyperloop team’s sky’s-the-limit approach has yet to attract the political rancor associated with California’s high-speed rail endeavor, which has benefited from the unswerving devotion of Gov. Jerry Brown.

As research advances, however, attention from policymakers and activists will likely become inevitable. The costs associated with the project — borne by private investors, not public funds — could prove enough to renew argument about the future of Brown’s bullet train.

As CNBC revealed, the Hyperloop team “estimates that the cost of the system would be $20 million to $45 million a mile, as contrast from what it says are costs of up to $200 million a mile for a conventional mass transportation system.”

This piece was originally publish by CalWatchdog.com