June 24, 2024

Google’s Autonomous Vehicles Draw Skepticism at Legal Symposium

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Even as Google tests its small fleet of self-driving vehicles on California highways, legal scholars and government officials are warning that society has only begun wrestling with the changes that would be required in a system created a century ago to meet the challenge of horseless carriages.

What happens if a police officer wants to pull one of these vehicles over? When it stops at a four-way intersection, would it be too polite to take its turn ahead of aggressive human drivers (or equally polite robots)? What sort of insurance would it need?

These and other implications of what Google calls autonomous vehicles were debated by Silicon Valley technologists, legal scholars and government regulators last week a daylong symposium sponsored by the Law Review and High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University.

As Google has demonstrated, computerized systems that replace human drivers are now largely workable and could greatly limit human error, which causes most of the 33,000 deaths and 1.2 million injuries that now occur each year on the nation’s roads.

Such vehicles also hold the potential for greater fuel efficiency and lower emissions — and, more broadly, for restoring the United States’ primacy in the global automobile industry.

But questions of legal liability, privacy and insurance regulation have yet to be addressed, and an array of speakers suggested that such challenges might pose far more problems than the technological ones.

Today major automobile makers have already deployed advanced sensor-based safety systems that both assist and in some cases correct driver actions. But Google’s project goes much further, transforming human drivers into passengers and coexisting with conventional vehicles driven by people.

Last September, Sebastian Thrun, director of Google’s autonomous vehicle research program, wrote that the project had achieved 200,000 miles of driving without an accident while cars were under computer control.

Over the last two years, Google and automobile makers have been lobbying for legislative changes to permit autonomous vehicles on the nation’s roads.

Nevada became the first state to legalize driverless vehicles last year, and similar laws have now been introduced before legislatures in Florida and Hawaii. Several participants at the Santa Clara event said a similar bill would soon be introduced in California.

Yet simple questions, like whether the police should have the right to pull over autonomous vehicles, have yet to be answered, said Frank Douma, a research fellow at the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Minnesota.

“It’s a 21st-century Fourth Amendment seizure issue,” he said.

The federal government does not have enough information to determine how to regulate driverless technologies, said O. Kevin Vincent, chief counsel of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But he added:

“We think it’s a scary concept for the public. If you have two tons of steel going down the highway at 60 miles an hour a few feet away from two tons of steel going in the exact opposite direction at 60 miles an hour, the public is fully aware of what happens when those two hunks of metal collide and they’re inside one of those hunks of metal. They ought to be petrified of that concept.”

And despite Google’s early success, technological barriers remain. Some the most trivial tasks for human drivers — like recognizing an officer or safety worker motioning a driver to proceed in an alternate direction — await a breakthrough in artificial intelligence that may not come soon.

Moreover, even after intelligent cars match human capabilities, significant issues would remain, suggested Sven A. Beiker, executive director of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford University. Today, human drivers frequently bend the rules by rolling through stop signs and driving above speed limits, he noted; how would a polite and law-abiding robot vehicle fare against such competition?

“Everybody might be bending the rules a little bit,” he said. “This is what the researchers are telling me — because the car is so polite it might be sitting at a four-way intersection forever, because no one else is coming to a stop.”

Because of the array of challenges, Dr. Beiker said he was wary about predicting when autonomous vehicles might arrive.

“Twenty years from now we might have completely autonomous vehicles,” he said, “maybe on limited roads.”

Questions of legal liability and insurance are also unknown territory.

There will be huge potential liabilities for the designers and manufacturers of autonomous vehicles, said Gary E. Marchant, director of the Center for Law, Science and Innovation at the Arizona State University law school.

“Why would you even put money into developing it?” he asked. “I see this as a huge barrier to this technology unless there are some policy ways around it” — though he noted that there were precedents for Congress’s adopting such policies.

For example, liability exemptions have been mandated for vaccines, which are believed to offer great value for the general health of the population, despite some risks.

There will also be unpredictable technological risks, several participants said. For example, future autonomous vehicles will rely heavily on global positioning satellite data and other systems, which are vulnerable to jamming by malicious computer hackers.

Although they did not participate in any of the panel discussions, several Google engineers and employees attended the event. The company has declined to discuss what it might be planning to do with its autonomous vehicle research, and several participants said privately that they did not believe the company planned to become a provider of autonomous navigation systems to the automobile industry.

Indeed, several people familiar with the company’s plans said the fact that Google was lobbying for state laws to permit autonomous driving indicated that it hoped to introduce such vehicles soon — perhaps driverless delivery vans or taxis, as early as 2013 or 2014.

Several participants suggested that in addition to technological and legal challenges, autonomous driving could use a more consumer-friendly name. Indeed, some called the definition itself into question.

“It won’t truly be an autonomous vehicle,” said Brad Templeton, a software designer and a consultant for the Google project, “until you instruct it to drive to work and it heads to the beach instead.”

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=730807fb346185ca0d86eb9702b41672

Bucks: Friday Reading: Embracing Energy Conservation

July 29

Friday Reading: Embracing Energy Conservation

The auto industry will stand behind a rule requiring a steep rise in fuel efficiency, the Japanese are cutting fuel consumption, a “free” drug app that comes with a cost and other consumer-focused news from The New York Times.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=252501b4535ae20582430c5c2358c881

Ford Cancels Minivan Plan for Hybrids and Plug-Ins

The car, called the C-Max, would be Ford’s first hybrid-only model in North America, in the same way that the Toyota Prius is offered only as a hybrid.

In addition, Ford said it intended to triple its production capacity for hybrid and electric cars in North America so that it could build more than 100,000 of them annually by 2013. The increase will add 220 jobs in Michigan, Ford said.

James D. Farley Jr., Ford’s group vice president for global marketing, sales and service, said the carmaker was planning for a future in which fuel efficiency remained a high priority for consumers.

“Customers have really changed in the last 120 days,” Mr. Farley told reporters at a transmission plant north of Detroit. “People are so focused on fuel economy.”

Ford officials said the C-Max hatchback presented a stronger business case than the gasoline-powered, seven-passenger Grand C-Max that it planned to import from Europe. Ford now sells C-Max hatchbacks and minivans in Europe, in gasoline and diesel varieties, and said demand for the five-passenger version had doubled there this year.

The C-Max now scheduled to go on sale in the United States will be built in suburban Detroit, alongside the similarly sized Focus compact car, which is available now with a traditional engine and will be sold as a battery-powered car starting later this year.

Rather than fight for a share of the small but somewhat resurgent minivan market, Ford is using the C-Max to take aim at the Prius and the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid built by General Motors.

Aaron Bragman, an analyst with the research firm IHS Automotive, said automakers were being forced to put more emphasis on hybrids by stricter federal mileage requirements, known as Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE.

“These powertrains are going to have to become ubiquitous in order to meet the new CAFE regulations,” Mr. Bragman said.

Ford declined to provide detailed specifications about the C-Max, but Mr. Bragman said he expected the plug-in version, called the Energi, to compare favorably to the Volt, which G.M. introduced late last year. The C-Max Energi will operate in a similar fashion as the Volt by allowing users to connect it to an electrical outlet or high-voltage charging station. It will run first solely on battery power before using any gasoline.

Mr. Farley said the C-Max Energi would be “fully competitive” with the Volt and would travel 500 miles on a full charge and tank of gas. The Volt has a combined range of about 379 miles, including 35 miles on the battery alone, according to its Environmental Protection Agency label.

Mr. Farley would not give a battery-only range for the C-Max, which has space for three passengers in the back seat. The Volt can fit only two passengers because its battery protrudes where the middle seat would be.

Mr. Bragman said Ford was likely to sell the C-Max for considerably less than the Volt because it is using a lot of common parts. The Volt has a sticker price of about $41,000, before a $7,500 federal tax credit.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=7509e00273ae59791a3cfc37d38110e6

To Cut Smog, Navistar Blazes Risky Path of Its Own

One measurement — for nitrogen oxide emissions, or NOx — is of particular concern to Navistar. From 2010 onward, all new truck engines must achieve tough, near-zero limits for NOx, a chief ingredient of smog. Virtually every truck maker besides Navistar chose to use an add-on system to their existing engines that uses a fluid cocktail to help neutralize the pollutant as it makes its way out of the exhaust.

Navistar went a different route, deciding to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to refine an engine that produces minimal NOx in the first place. At the same time, the company attacked the competing systems, suing federal air quality regulators and claiming that the add-on technology was so flawed that it failed to meet the clean-air requirements.

If Navistar’s engine works — the company recently submitted test results for the latest version to the Environmental Protection Agency for certification — it could be the simplest, most elegant solution to the vexing engineering problem of how to reduce smog created by diesel truck exhaust.

But the company would also have to persuade skeptical fleet owners to buy the engines. If those owners do not see a clear advantage in operating costs and fuel efficiency, Navistar could find itself stuck as the only engine maker promoting an alternative technology to the rest of the industry’s E.P.A.-approved approach.

The company has already paid a price for choosing the road less traveled. While its engines have been in development, its share of the United States market for the heaviest trucks fell to 20.2 percent this year, down from 28.5 percent in 2009, according to researchers at JPMorgan.

Many of Navistar’s fellow truck makers and some environmental groups have dismissed the company’s complaints as the desperate grumblings of a truck builder that painted itself into a corner with a system that some have written off as impractical — the Betamax of pollution control technology.

Navistar says its approach to NOx reduction will ultimately be justified.

“We didn’t make this decision lightly,” said Jack Allen, the president of the company’s North American Truck Group. “We’ve been making diesel engines for 75-plus years, and we evaluated every alternative that was out there. We’re confident that our solution is what customers will want.”

Operators of truck fleets say they are keeping an open mind.

But so far, the add-on systems made by other truck companies offer the best combination of “fuel performance, upfront purchase price and running costs,” said Art Vallely, senior vice president of rental and vehicle management for Penske Truck Leasing, which operates 200,000 vehicles.

Diesel engines in the nation’s 18-wheelers, buses and other heavy-duty vehicles power less than 10 percent of all vehicle traffic in the United States, but they account for an outsize portion of the haze of pollution that hangs over many American cities — as much as 25 percent by some estimates.

Reducing those emissions is an engineering challenge in which every tweak has consequences. Reducing the temperature of combustion, for example, is an easy way to reduce NOx emissions. But it also generates more soot — the black smoke coming out of a diesel engine. The soot levels can be reduced by altering the timing of combustion, but that raises fuel consumption.

Standing on the floor of Navistar’s engine facility here, Luis C. Cattani, a chief engineer with the company, recalled that he was discouraged by colleagues from joining Navistar after a career designing high-performance engines in Detroit. “They said, ‘Oh, you’ll be so bored,’ ” Mr. Cattani said. “But as an engineer, you really love this sort of challenge.”

Recognizing the complexity of the issue, the E.P.A. gave truck makers a decade to engineer a solution when it issued new NOx limits in 2001. Navistar was an early proponent of a technique called exhaust gas recirculation, or E.G.R., a well-established process in which burned gases from the engine exhaust are routed back to the cylinder, diluting the mixture and lowering the temperature of combustion, which in turn reduces the amount of NOx formed.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=d8a500d5405cdccd47d2b0604e307401