Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

May 10th, 2016:

Are driverless cars ready or not?

GM and Lyft think theirs are pretty close.

Lyft

General Motors Co. and Lyft Inc. within a year will begin testing a fleet of self-driving Chevrolet Bolt electric taxis on public roads, a move central to the companies’ joint efforts to challenge Silicon Valley giants in the battle to reshape the auto industry.

The plan is being hatched a few months after GM invested $500 million in Lyft, a ride-hailing company whose services rival Uber Technologies Inc. The program will rely on technology being acquired as part of GM’s separate $1 billion planned purchase of San Francisco-based Cruise Automation Inc., a developer of autonomous-driving technology.

Details of the autonomous-taxi testing program are still being worked out, according to a Lyft executive, but it will include customers in a yet-to-be disclosed city. Customers will have the opportunity to opt in or out of the pilot when hailing a Lyft car from the company’s mobile app.

[…]

The new effort is directed mostly at challenging Alphabet and Uber. The Google self-driving car program has gained a sizable lead over conventional auto makers via testing in California and other states, and it received an additional boost this week through a minivan-supply agreement with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV. Uber, much bigger than Lyft, has its own self-driving research center in Pittsburgh and is preparing to usher autonomous vehicles in to its fleet by 2020.

I alluded to this yesterday. My reaction remains: Next year? Really? That’s pretty darned aggressive. It’s also pretty interesting considering that the people who are making driverless cars have been suggesting that we should maybe slow our roll a little.

Engineers, safety advocates and even automakers have a safety message for federal regulators eager to get self-driving cars on the road: slow down.

Fully self-driving cars may be the future of the automotive industry, but they aren’t yet up to the demands of real-world driving, several people told the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration during a public meeting Friday.

A slower, more deliberative approach may be needed instead of the agency’s rapid timetable for producing guidance for deploying the vehicles, according to an auto industry trade association.

[…]

A General Motors official recently told a Senate committee that the automaker expects to deploy self-driving cars within a few years through a partnership with the ride-sharing service Lyft. Google, a pioneer in the development of self-driving cars, is pushing Congress to give the NHTSA new powers to grant it special, expedited permission to sell cars without steering wheels or pedals.

But many of those who addressed the meeting, the first of two the agency has scheduled as it works on the guidelines, described a host of situations that self-driving cars still can’t handle:

—Poorly marked pavement, including parking lots and driveways, could foil the technology, which relies on clear lane markings.

—Bad weather can interfere with vehicle sensors.

—Self-driving cars can’t take directions from a policeman.

—Inconsistent traffic-control devices such as horizontal versus lateral traffic lights.

Until the technology has advanced beyond the point where ordinary conditions are problematic, “it is dangerous, impractical and a major threat to the public health, safety and welfare to deploy them,” said Mark Golden, executive director of the National Society of Professional Engineers.

There have been thousands of “disengagements” reported in road tests of self-driving cars in which the vehicles automatically turned control over to a human being, said John Simpson, privacy project director of Consumer Watchdog.

“Self-driving cars simply aren’t ready to safely manage too many routine traffic situations without human intervention,” he said.

There’s also the concern that driverless cars, which by definition will be connected to the Internet, will be vulnerable to malware. We’re not at a point where today’s cars can be successfully hijacked, as dramatized on a recent episode of Elementary, but it is something the industry is gaming out now. The larger point here is that our driverless car future may be farther off than we think. Or maybe it’s closer than we think. We’ll see how that taxi pilot goes.

One more thing:

Executives at Lyft and Uber have said one of the top hurdles to their success is navigating a patchwork of regulations that govern the use of autonomous vehicles and liabilities. In an effort to ease regulatory concerns, Lyft will start with autonomous cars that have drivers in the cockpit ready to intervene—but the driver is expected to eventually be obsolete.

“We will want to vet the autonomous tech between Cruise, GM and ourselves and slowly introduce this into markets,” Taggart Matthiesen, Lyft’s product director, said in an interview. That will “ensure that cities would have full understanding of what we are trying to do here.”

Well, at least we won’t be fighting about fingerprints any more. I shudder to think how much money will be dumped into those lobbying – and possibly electioneering – efforts.

Uber and Lyft do what they said they would

They’ve cut and run.

Uber

Uber and Lyft made good on their threat to end Austin service Monday, pulling out two days after voters rejected their $9.1 million bid to overturn the city’s rules for ride-hailing companies.

Their departure came despite offers from Mayor Steve Adler to return to the table to negotiate a compromise. Meanwhile, smaller ride-hailing firms tried to press their newfound advantage.

“If they’re saying the election results mean they had to leave town, maybe they shouldn’t have asked for the election,” said Jason Stanford, Adler’s spokesman.

“The mayor’s been very clear,” Stanford added. “They are welcome to stay, and he invites them to the table, regardless of what they choose to do at this point.”

[…]

Lyft

In notices posted on their apps Monday, both Uber and Lyft blamed their pullout on the City Council’s rules, making no mention of the failed ballot measure to overturn them.

“Due to City Council action, Lyft cannot operate in Austin,” Lyft’s statement read. “Contact your City Council member now to tell them you want Lyft back.”

Uber’s statement was similar: “Due to regulations passed by City Council, Uber is no longer available within Austin city limits. We hope to resume operations under modern ridesharing regulations in the near future.”

Let’s be clear about one thing: Uber and Lyft were not forced to leave Austin. The rejection of Prop 1 simply means that the city’s existing rideshare ordinance – which as I understand it has not actually begun requiring fingerprint checks yet – remains in place. Uber and Lyft chose to leave rather than operate under those conditions, as Uber has done for the past year and a half in Houston and as both of them have done for longer than that in New York. Nothing about the Prop 1 vote requires them to leave. It is entirely their choice. There has always been room for further discussion on this, though it’s hard to do so when the first move is to go to DefCon 5. But despite all the rhetoric and millions of dollars flushed down the pockets of political consultant and media buyers, it’s not too late to start talking.

What should happen now, then?

Fingerprint-based background checks aren’t great. The FBI’s database is known to be flawed with outdated and inaccurate information. It’s kind of like taking your shoes off before you get on an airplane—it provides the feeling of security while also inconveniencing a bunch of people for show. Still, it might turn out to be the best option—more on that in a second—but as the city considers what regulations are in everybody’s best interest, now that it has ensured that it has a full complement of options at its disposal, it should be looking beyond fingerprinting.

Isn’t Austin stuck with fingerprinting now that people voted down Prop 1?

Nope. If Prop 1 would have passed, the city would have been prohibited from passing fingerprint-based regulations. But now the city is allowed to create whatever regulations it deems appropriate. City council can—and should–be looking to tweak the current ordinance with one that, for example, doesn’t prove discriminatory against drivers of color the way that fingerprint checks do. Although we doubt that Uber and Lyft are particularly passionate about that issue when it doesn’t directly concern them, the Austin chapter of the NAACP and the Urban League certainly are, and the objections they raised deserve to be considered and taken into account.

So what sort of background check should Lyft and Uber do?

That’s the zillion dollar question here. The problem is that most jobs have a process that screens out people who raise red flags. For most companies, you go through an interview, meet the people you’ll be working for, and get offered the chance to interact with the public based on the judgment of someone who is responsible for making sure that the company is represented well. (Depending on the job, it can also come with more formal background checks.) Because the “hiring” process for Lyft and Uber is more of a “sign up” process, the system relies on computer checks to do all of that work. That’s going to result in a process that has definite flaws—and it’s going to take creativity beyond just “run a fingerprint check” to address them. What that specifically looks like is hard to say, but between Austin’s leaders and Lyft and Uber, you’d think there would be enough brainpower to consider some viable options.

[…]

So what would make Uber and Lyft come back to the table, if they can just lobby for new rules in the legislature in 2017?

A couple of things: One, they don’t want to give up market share if a competitor picks up steam here over the next year. Two, it’s hard to keep growing a company that’s opted out of too many markets. Investors who see that Lyft doesn’t operate in Austin or Houston, and who know that they may have to make some threats about leaving L.A., have to give some thought to the growth potential of the company.

So what’s the best case scenario here for everybody?

Smart regulations that don’t rely on fingerprinting would be a good place to start. Austin should want Uber and Lyft operating in the city. Uber and Lyft should want to operate in Austin. Austin should want to create regulations that keep people with a history of DWI arrests, or violence against women, or other red flags like that, from driving people around for money—but it shouldn’t enforce regulations that would, say, keep drivers of color (who are disproportionately arrested for minor infractions that don’t put passengers at risk) from working. That system may not exist yet, but creating it ought to be a priority for everybody.

More than anything, a lot of ego is gonna need to be checked. The people who fought against Prop 1, which had a sort of David and Goliath quality to it, need to recognize that the support they received on Saturday was at least as much of a response to the tone of the campaign Uber and Lyft were running as it was a show of support for the specifics of the current regulations. Drawing a hard line around those specific regulations just because they won the vote would be a short-sighted, wrongheaded move.

Uber and Lyft, meanwhile, definitely need to approach Austin City Council with some humility, and consider not just what makes it easiest for them to add drivers to their ranks, but also that there are legitimate safety issues at stake here that the current regulations fail to address.

As Vox points out, Uber in particular has a choice to make about its public image. At the very least, I don’t think this debacle helped them with that. It would be nice if they came up with a solution – even a suggestion – that was more than “trust us, our process is all you’ll ever need, and if you don’t like it we’ll come after your ass”.

As far as the statewide regulation possibility goes, this is a reminder that there are never any guarantees in the Lege.

The chairman of the House Transportation Committee on Monday said that he prefers cities to set the rules for Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing companies, even after a municipal vote in Austin has prompted new calls for the state to step in.

Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, said he’s “more interested in what the public thinks” — and that “they spoke in Austin.” Voters there on Saturday rejected a measure to get rid of the city’s current ride-sharing rules, which will require fingerprint-based background checks.

Some Republicans say the election — and the decision by Uber and Lyft to now leave Austin — shows the need for the state to pass industry-friendly rules. That group grew on Monday to include Sen. Robert Nichols, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee.

But Pickett didn’t join the dog pile.

If the Legislature were to get involved, Pickett said, it should be through a broad discussion about all car-for-hire models, including taxicabs and limos. And if there are statewide rules, he said, fingerprint-based background checks should be part of the agenda.

“Still, the best would be to let the local municipalities decide,” said Pickett, who stressed that he supports all the ride-hailing options, including Uber and Lyft.

[…]

On Monday, Nichols, the Senate Transportation chairman, said in a written statement that “it is important to create consistency with a statewide policy to ensure all requirements for Transportation Network Companies are uniform across the state.”

“It can be difficult for these types of companies to operate when there are different ordinances in cities that are adjacent to each other,” said Nichols, a Jacksonville Republican.

That’s the first we’ve heard from Sen. Nichols since his comment in January that seemed to support a fingerprint requirement in any statewide bill. This story notes that Rep. Chris Paddie’s bill from last session eventually had a fingerprint requirement in it before it passed out of the House committee. We’re a long way from any bills being introduced, and I fully expect this to be a headline fight next year, but all I’m saying is that the signals are mixed right now about what such a bill might wind up looking like. Don’t take any bets on it just yet.

One more thing, from that Statesman story:

Still, the exit of Lyft and Uber from Austin created an opening for GetMe, a small Texas-born ride-hailing upstart.

“GetMe is seeing an unprecedented spike in driver sign-ups, uploads of the app and transactions on the app,” said Jon Laramy, a company co-founder. “I applaud the city of Austin for standing up for, and listening to, the citizens.”

The service had 350 active drivers in the city as of Friday and another 1,600 in the process of joining up, Laramy added, a number that he expects to grow.

[…]

GetMe isn’t alone in the Austin market. San Francisco-based Wingz is primarily an airport shuttle service but plans to expand its “private car service” in the next month, the company’s CEO said Monday.

Another company called zTrip offers a variety of services, including airport vans, limousines and a Williamson County cab service and also is eyeing quick growth, owner Billy Carter said Monday. A third upstart service, Phoenix-based Fare, told the Statesman it’s interested in Austin.

By far, the best thing that could happen as a result of this, regardless of what goes on next year in the Lege, is for multiple viable competitors to Uber and Lyft emerge. I mean, isn’t that how a free market is supposed to operate? Let a thousand flowers bloom now that the field has been abandoned by the top predators. We all win in that scenario.

Sugarek/Jeffery foster family update

From Lisa Falkenberg:

The drab little courtroom off the square in Wharton, with its blond wood, stoic flags and idle metal detector at the door, seemed like an alternative universe.

Two Houston foster mothers who entered Thursday with anticipation and profound concern for the little boys recently removed from their home were jolted back by a process puttering along at half speed.

The horrifying realities facing the boys seemed shrouded in jargon and legal formalities. A CPS supervisor in a shiny suit, and the county attorney paid to represent the agency, moved with an utter lack of urgency.

The judge, Eric Andell, at least seemed to grasp the seriousness of the case and noted he’d read about it in this column last week.

The foster mothers, Angela Sugarek and Carol Jeffery, who were by all accounts loving parents to 3-year-old “Dion” and 4-year-old “Darius,” saw their plans of adoption dashed when CPS relocated the boys last month, apparently because the foster mothers had reported alleged abuse by a teen half-sibling living elsewhere in foster care.

[…]

At the status hearing last week, the foster mothers hoped the judge would consider their motion. They asked to be heard in matter, and they made a formal request to adopt the boys. But a ruling was delayed because their attorney had filed the motion only the night before.

“It seems to me the quicker we get this case to trial, the better off we are,” the judge told the attorneys and court-appointed advocates. “Time is not our friend.”

In fact, time may be the enemy for two troubled little boys with a history of abuse.

See here for the background, and be sure to read the whole thing. The good news is that CPS program director Leshia Fisher has been apprised, and is looking into things. The bad news is that she had been completely unaware that the boys had been taken away from Sugarek and Jeffery; she had assumed they had been returned to them by now. Every day that passes makes the situation worse for all involved. All we can do at this point is hope that someone steps in and fixes this.

And speaking of our bedeviled foster care system:

Two special masters appointed by a federal judge to oversee reforms to the state’s embattled foster care system have begun visiting with state officials, and their recent two-and-a-half-day orientation is projected to cost the state roughly $43,000, according to state officials.

The cost of the meetings held April 25-27 are just the beginning of an open-ended tab for court-ordered oversight after U.S. District Judge Janis Jack ruled last year that Texas’ long-term foster care system treated children inhumanely and violated their civil rights.

In that December ruling, Jack ordered the state to pay special masters to study ways to improve foster care over a six-month period. In March, Jack picked two special masters favored by children’s rights advocates: Francis McGovern, a Duke University law professor, and Kevin Ryan, a partner at the New Jersey nonprofit Public Catalyst, which advocates for child welfare.

Emails obtained by The Texas Tribune show the special masters and their staff arranged meetings with state officials for late April. Jack approved pay for McGovern and Ryan at $345 per hour, according to the court record.

Ryan also hired four staff members to assist him: Deborah Fowler, Eileen Crummy, Lisa Taylor and Margaret McHale. McHale received court approval to charge $305 per hour; the other three staff could charge $325 per hour, according to an email from staff at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

[…]

This isn’t the first time the state has been on the hook for the costs of an external review of the state’s child welfare system. In 2014, the state paid The Stephen Group to review the operations of the state’s Child Protective Services agency. The initial $750,000 contract has been renewed twice, for a total cost of $2.7 million.

In this case, however, state lawmakers had no choice in approving the cost of the special masters. Lawyers for the state are appealing Jack’s ruling but must comply with her orders as the appeal progresses. Republican leaders have challenged Jack’s ruling as an affront to states’ rights.

A spokesman for Gov. Greg Abbott said the court ruling was forcing the state to spend money it could have otherwise used to improve child safety, such as hiring more staff. Much of Jack’s ruling criticized the state for failing to hire enough caseworkers to keep track of vulnerable children.

“It’s unfortunate and disappointing that millions of dollars that could have gone to serving youth in the Texas foster care system and hiring more caseworkers will now be spent towards the legally baseless special master process,” Abbott spokesman John Wittman said in a prepared statement.

[…]

State Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, told colleagues at an April hearing of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee that the state was simply paying on the back end for its failures to offer preventive care.

“Every time we have a federal court telling us that we’re not complying, it ends up costing us money. That’s just the way it is,” he said. “I know we’re all concerned about cost, but we always talk about how sometimes, prevention that we could’ve done could’ve saved us a lot of money.”

That’s because we always have to do this the hard way. And because “states rights” are more important than the children. Greg Abbott himself says so.

RIP, Carl Whitmarsh

This was certainly a shock.

Carl Whitmarsh

Carl Whitmarsh used to joke that when he died, there would be as many people ready to dance on his grave as to cry over his death. A towering figure in Harris County Democratic politics, Whitmarsh rarely held his punches against those he disagreed with, but was a loyal friend and supporter of those on his side.

Whitmarsh died over the weekend at 64. The cause was not immediately clear, but he had been in ill health for years. The Harris County Democratic Party announced Whitmarsh’s death in an email to members Sunday evening.

“He was a somewhat cantankerous and often polarizing figure, but his primary role was in keeping everybody honest,” said Lane Lewis, a close friend of Whitmarsh’s and chairman of the Harris County Democratic Party. “I suspect there are people sharpening their knives as we speak without him keeping them in check.”

Whitmarsh served as executive director of the county Democratic party; as an aide to Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, the vice presidential pick on Michael Dukakis’ 1988 ticket; and most recently, as president of the Oak Forest Area Democrats, a group active in northwest Houston. Throughout his decades behind the scenes in politics, he helped hundreds of candidates get elected, said State Sen. John Whitmire, a close friend.

[…]

“Carl Whitmarsh was a dear friend,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a statement. “There was no greater supporter than Carl. And no greater defender of the little person, those who were discriminated against and those who had nothing but their dignity. Carl was a mighty force of nature when he went after those he believed were hurting others or just plain wrong-headed about issues. But when he was your friend, Carl would go to the ends of the earth to help you.”

If you were at all involved in Democratic politics around here, you knew Carl. And if you knew Carl, you were undoubtedly stunned by the news of his death, announced via email from the HCDP on Sunday afternoon. Carl was as busy and active as he had ever been in these past weeks, so the odds are you saw him or spoke to him recently. He was doing what he always did, what he loved to do, which was supporting good Democrats and exhorting us all to get involved. If you could ask him right now, I’m sure he’d say is that his one regret is not being able to cast a vote for President Hillary Clinton. Carl was a force of nature, a stubborn old cuss, a hell-raiser to the bone, and a strong and loyal friend. Like so many others, I can’t quite believe there will be no more emails or phone calls or Facebook posts from him. You will be missed, Carl. Rest in peace, my friend.