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Driverless cars in Texas

You have perhaps heard the news that Google’s driverless car has been approved for street usage in California; specifically, California Governor Jerry Brown has signed a bill that requires the California Department of Motor Vehicles to draft regulations for autonomous vehicles by Jan. 1, 2015. You may be wondering, with varying degrees of wonder or horror, when Texas might do the same. KUT takes a look.

While the prospect of seeing a car with no driver may be terrifying – especially if the car is converging with you at an intersection – robots have some advantages: they don’t get tired, drunk, or distracted by their phones, apply makeup, eat breakfast, or skim text messages. Robot drivers are always on-duty, fully-functioning, and paying attention. (Unless of course they have a software bug, or a system failure, or some wires shake loose.)

But when will the Google car come to Texas? The Texas Department of Transportation says they’re not aware of any plans to put robot drivers on Lone Star roads. The Texas Legislature would have to pass new laws allowing self-driving cars, and it meets next in January.

But the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, the primary research center for Texas roadways, tells KUT News its researchers are visiting Google next week to learn more about the self-driving cars. And here in Austin, University of Texas research is focusing on creating not intelligent automobiles, but intelligent intersections that could leave the driving to your car.

Many other states are considering whether or not to put robots on the road.  Auto manufacturers, including BMW, Audi, Cadillac, and Volvo, are working on self-driving technologies. And Ford and Lexus have cars that can park themselves.

Say it with me now: “I for one welcome our robot automotive overlords”. I can’t wait to see the debate on this one in the Legislature. The lobbying effort alone will be worth watching. What do you think about this? Are you looking forward to the day when your car will drive you, or are you convinced this is just another step towards The Matrix? Leave a comment and let me know.

Hacking cars

You can add this to the list of things you didn’t know you needed to worry about.

Computer hackers can force some cars to unlock their doors and start their engines without a key by sending specially crafted messages to a car’s anti-theft system. They can also snoop at where you’ve been by tapping the car’s GPS system.

That is possible because car alarms, GPS systems and other devices are increasingly connected to cellular telephone networks and thus can receive commands through text messaging. That capability allows owners to change settings on devices remotely, but it also gives hackers a way in.

Researchers from iSEC Partners recently demonstrated such an attack on a Subaru Outback equipped with a vulnerable alarm system, which wasn’t identified. With a laptop perched on the hood, they sent the Subaru’s alarm system commands to unlock the doors and start the engine.

Sounds scary! But PC World puts it into context.

As the AP article goes on to explain, hackers need a specific phone number to break into an in-car security system. To get that number, they must run a certain kind of network administration program, which can probe for vulnerable security devices by make and model. Then, the thief must get close to the target vehicle and run a hacking tool to see if that car is using a vulnerable security system.

After all that effort, the car’s steering wheel may still be mechanically locked, preventing the hacker from driving away after breaking in. If someone really wants to steal a car, there are plenty of other methods that sound a lot easier. Besides, Bailey and Solnik are already working with the maker of the security system they hacked to plug the holes.

Keep in mind that this high-tech car hack is just a proof of concept, and it’s not the first. In March, researchers described using a Trojan horse on an audio CD to break a car’s defenses. To my knowledge, no car theft epidemic has resulted from either of these methods.

So don’t sweat it too much for now. Two things to add. One, not to get all tinfoil hatty on you, but if this capability exists, it’s the government that’s most likely to figure out how best to capitalize on it. Not because they want to steal your car, but because your car’s GPS can be hacked in similar fashion, and that information could be of interest to them. And two, since the story also mentioned the possibility of hackers messing with a car’s computer-controlled systems, such as the brakes, it’s just a matter of time before this becomes a key plot element in a mystery or thriller novel. As a fan of that genre, I like to keep abreast of the coming attractions.

California breathin’

We may get some cleaner air to breathe here in Texas thanks to California and President Obama.

Obama ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to review the Bush administration’s refusal to allow California and 13 other states to set the nation’s toughest vehicle emissions standards.

During a ceremony in the White House East Room, Obama signed a directive requiring the agency immediately to review that December 2007 decision denying California permission to limit carbon dioxide emissions from cars and trucks.

“The federal government must work with, not against, states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Obama said.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who pushed unsuccessfully for tougher car emissions standards in the 2007 legislative session, says his measure may have a better chance this session now that one key obstacle — federal opposition — is likely to disappear.

“It’s an uphill battle to get the votes in the House and in the Senate,” Ellis acknowledged. “But on my side in the Senate, members who in the past were very reluctant to consider environmental legislation have gotten much more educated, as I’ve seen in private conversations.”

Ellis’ legislation would adopt all of California’s proposed emissions standards, as the 13 other states already have and several more are considering.

Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, has filed an identical bill in the House.

The bills in question are SB119 and HB776. I don’t know that this will give them a leg up, but it does at least knock down one objection to them. We know Speaker Straus is much more open to green legislation than Tom Craddick was. If Sen. Ellis’ assessment of his colleagues is accurate, then who knows?

Adopting the California standard in Texas would cost new-car buyers about $7 more per month if they financed a car over five years, Ellis said, but they would save up to $18 per month in fuel costs based on $1.74 per gallon of gas.

Many industry groups expressed opposition to the administration’s move.

The American Petroleum Institute said it “supports President Obama’s desire to fortify the nation’s energy security with a comprehensive energy policy” and said that since 2000 the oil and gas industry has invested $42 billion in “zero- and low-carbon” research and development. But the action contemplated in Monday’s announcement isn’t the best approach, the group said.

“Creating a patchwork regulatory structure across multiple states would most likely impose higher costs on consumers, slow economic growth and kill U.S. jobs,” the trading group said in a statement.

And carmakers have complained that developing vehicles that comply would cost billions of dollars.

But if the EPA agrees to California’s standards, Texas likely will be affected regardless of whether the Legislature approves Ellis’ measure. The 14 states that have adopted the tougher emissions standards represent more than half the nation’s population, so the practical effect of EPA approval of California’s rules would be to force automakers to raise fuel efficiency standards across their fleet.

Yeah, that would seem to be the obvious answer to the automakers’ complaint. I mean, nobody is forcing them to maintain two different standards. And let’s face it, when it comes to environmental matters, these guys are a bunch of weasels who generally need to be forced to do the right thing. So forgive me if I am unmoved by their argument.