As someone who has thought about cybersecurity for some time, including in previous posts on this blog, the recent events around the hack of the Colonial Pipeline has been front of mind, and not just because I live in Washington, D.C., where gas stations have been running out of fuel. The incident is yet another dramatic demonstration of how cyberattacks can cause serious real-world damage. As more and more of our transportation system becomes connected to computer networks (both vehicles and infrastructure) cybersecurity is becoming just as important issue as the physical safety and security of our roads and vehicles.  

Government Response

The Colonial Pipeline attack comes at a time when the Biden Administration and Congress have both turned their attention to cybersecurity. In the House, lawmakers have proposed $500 million in funding to help state and local governments protect themselves from cyberattacks, while other legislators have been discussing laws that require companies to report cyberattacks they suffer to the government and the public. Such rules would give the government greater insight into attacks and allow them to better coordinate responses when cybercriminals attack more than one company or industry. Making attacks public would also give the public a better idea of how the companies they patronize are protecting their data and products. At the same time, President Biden signed an executive order that will require all software sold to the federal government to meet set security standards. Given the sheer amount of buying power the U.S. government has, that means consumers will also likely benefit from the order, as companies up security in their products to make them competitive for government purchase.

The Colonial attack will also put more scrutiny on the Transportation Security Administration (this is the same TSA that confiscates your water bottles at the airport). While the U.S. Department of Transportation oversees the regulation of pipelines (via the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration), the TSA (part of the Department of Homeland Security) is tasked with helping pipeline owners protect their infrastructure from cyberattacks. In a 2018 report the government’s General Accounting Office (GAO) released a report on weaknesses in the TSA’s pipeline security efforts, including cybersecurity. As the fallout from the Colonial attack continues, the TSA’s infrastructure security will no doubt face some tough questions.

Issues for Transportation Technology Overall

Pipelines are far from the only part of our transportation system that is at risk of being hacked. Last June automaker Honda’s internal network was compromised, leading the company’s factories across the globe to shut down for a day or more. Journalists and hackers alike have shown how a vehicle’s onboard computers can be compromised in a number of ways. More recently, the European Union Agency for Cybersecurity issued a report that identified autonomous vehicles as “highly vulnerable to a wide range of attacks.” The complexity of AVs (and driver assistance systems) and the myriad of computer systems within them is part of why they make a tempting target. Issues also arise as vehicles become more networked – meaning a failure to connect to an outside server can limit a car’s capabilities, as has been reported with some Teslas at times. As AVs and connected vehicles of all kinds proliferate, along with connected infrastructure, the number of failure points or avenues of attack multiple, something that will keep engineers up for years to come.

One good thing that may come from the Colonial Pipeline incident is the centering of cybersecurity in our discussions over infrastructure and transportation. Especially as the White House and lawmakers continue to negotiate a potentially massive investment in infrastructure, addressing the cybersecurity ramifications will be vital. Likewise, the current surface transportation reauthorization (a bill that funds the U.S. DOT and highway projects) will expire on September 30, giving Congress a second opportunity to include cybersecurity issues into the greater transportation policy discussion.

Last year I wrote about Uber and Lyft’s battle against a California law that required them to treat their drivers as employees, rather than contractors. Then, in November, California voters passed Prop. 22, which exempted app-based drivers from that law, something Claire covered in detail. Two recent actions from the Biden Administration, which has positioned itself as pro-worker and pro-organized labor, indicate that the fight over how to classify gig workers is far from over, and that the administration will throw their weight toward increasing the rights of gig workers. These actions come as Uber, Lyft, and other emerging transportation companies reckon with their labor practices overall, amid a changing atmosphere as we emerge from COVID lockdown.

Administration Moves

Last week the Department of Labor withdrew a Trump-era proposed rule change governing the definition of “independent contractor.” The Trump Administration’s proposed change would have deemphasized a number of factors that are used in deciding a worker’s classification, which would have weighted considerations toward classifying workers as independent contractors. By pulling the rule before it can go into effect, the existing rule, with six factors for consideration, remains in use under the Fair Labor Standards Act. This move comes in the same week in which the Secretary of Labor, Marty Walsh, voiced his support for gig workers being considered as employees and receiving benefits, like health insurance, in “a lot of cases.” While that’s far from a definitive course of action, when combined with the regulatory changes, the Secretary’s words indicate the Federal government will be paying attention to the classification fight going forward and is putting its weight behind pro-worker options. I’ll also note that in March Uber announced it will categorize its UK drivers (which total more than 70,000) as employees, bringing them into compliance with a recent court decision – meaning Uber is facing labor changes on both sides of the Atlantic.

Uber and Lyft Need Drivers

While Uber and Lyft gird themselves for possible regulatory changes, they are also dealing with a shortage of drivers. In 2020 COVID lockdowns and the continued threat of the virus (along with the threat of monstrous customers…) cratered demand for rideshares, leading many drivers to move on from ridesharing. Now, with demand for rides growing as the world opens back up, both companies find themselves in need of more drivers and having to turn to financial incentives to recruit them. On the ground the shortage has raised prices and increased wait times for users.

At the same time as they have been recruiting more human drivers, both Uber and Lyft have purged their in-house development of automated vehicles. In December, Uber sold its automation efforts over to automated vehicle developer Aurora for roughly $4 billion. Then last month Lyft offloaded it’s automation program to a Toyota subsidiary for $550 million. For a long time the conventional wisdom was that the end-goal of the ridesharing companies was to automate their fleets and escape from having to deal with human employees (or contractors). Yet given that automation is still years away from widespread deployment and that only a few major corporations can afford the long term development costs of AVs, it seems Lyft and Uber are cutting their losses. That said, if they can survive COVID losses and changing demands, I’m sure they’ll be first in line to buy production AVs.

Emerging Tech and Emerging Labor Issues

Of course, Uber and Lyft are far from the only transportation-tech related companies with labor issues that have become apparent over the past year. Last year, as grocery deliveries exploded in popularity, Amazon drivers were coming up with unique ways of ensuring they got a crack at incoming orders – hanging their phones from trees as close to a Whole Foods as possible. The idea was that by leaving phones closer to the building they would be the first to be offered a delivery job via the gig-app Amazon Flex. Depending on your point of view this is either ingenious, or demonstrative of the gig economy pitting workers against each other. More recently Amazon has taken flack for making the delivery drivers who operate Amazon branded vans (yet are wait for it… contractors…) sign biometric consent forms. The forms give Amazon permission to use cameras and sensors to monitor drivers “100%” of the time they are working, in the name of safety, as the system can give audio alerts to drivers in real time. I can’t imagine that an AI-enabled camera that can yell corrections at you as you drive is anyone’s ideal boss, but here we are.

The gig economy is clearly not going away anytime soon, even if some gig jobs become automated. And now there is momentum for dealing with the employment issues around these companies and their platforms. Just where that momentum takes the labor market, and how it may change the relationship between platforms and workers, remains to be seen.

Last week I wrote about how a recent crash in Texas is illustrative of a serious issue with Tesla’s Autopilot feature. As a refresher, Autopilot is an advanced driver-assistance system (ADAS), meaning it can take over a number of driving tasks and help protect drivers, but a human is supposed to remain focused on the driving task. Failures within the Autopilot system have contributed to several fatal accidents, and Tesla drivers have at times abused the system, using it to operate their vehicle while sleeping, or when they were passed out due to drinking. But these incidents shine a light on bigger problems with Autopilot and ADAS systems in general – problems of public perception in regards to the capabilities of these systems and the lack of regulation dealing with them.

Public Perception

The first consideration in regards to Autopilot and the rest of ADAS/AV development is the question of the public’s perception of Autopilot and just what the technology can actually do. While some of these incidents are no doubt caused by drivers intentionally pushing the limits of the Autopilot system, others are likely cases of “mode confusion” – something previously seen in fighter pilots. Fighter aircraft can have multiple different modes of automation, and to prevent confusion pilots are highly trained to understand the capabilities and limits of each mode available in a given aircraft. The same is not true for drivers, especially when marketing materials and manuals are unclear or make a vehicle out to be more autonomous than it really is. Indeed, a German court recently found that Tesla’s claims about Autopilot were misleading, in a suit brought by a watchdog organization (of which several German automakers are members…). Indeed, the name “Autopilot” seems tailor-made to confuse consumers, though Tesla founder (and soon to be Saturday Night Live host?) claims the name is apt, as aircraft autopilot systems always require supervision. While that may be true, one does wonder how many Tesla owners or potential Tesla owners are up on aircraft operation procedures.

The issue is compounded by Tesla’s introduction of further automation technology and software, including what they call “Full Self-Driving” (FSD). While Tesla’s website and their manuals do state that a driver must be “fully attentive” the danger of confusion is clear (enough that the California DMV, which regulates AVs in that state, had to press Tesla to explain just what FSD did and why Tesla believed the DMV shouldn’t regulate it like other AV systems. It also doesn’t help that the systems in place to monitor drivers using Autopilot can rather easily be tricked, meaning that it’s extremely likely some drivers are intentionally circumventing the vehicle’s safeguards.

Problems for AV and ADAS development and deployment arise if Tesla’s incidents become the face these systems to the public. Tesla has a well-earned image as an innovative company, having pushed the electric vehicle market into a new era, and Autopilot is almost certainly preventing accidents when used properly, just as other ADAS systems do. But if all that cuts into the public consciousness is high profile abuses and deadly accidents, that could set back public trust of automation and harm the industry overall.

Lack of Regulation

There is a very important piece of the puzzle left to talk about – the government’s role in regulating Autopilot and vehicle automation overall. Much has been discussed in this blog about the lack of overall AV regulation, and ADAS has fallen into the same situation – namely the technology is out on the road while safety regulations remain in the draft folder. As I mentioned last week, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), in its 2019 investigation of an Autopilot-related crash, took to task the government’s primary vehicle safety regulator, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), for failing to generate clear ADAS safety rules. During the Trump administration, NHTSA remained extremely hands off on generating new rules or regulations regarding ADAS. In 2016, Obama-era NHTSA regulators had indicated that “predictable abuse” could be considered a potential defect in an automated system, which could have flagged Autopilot misuse, but that guidance wasn’t followed up. It remains to be seen if the Biden administration will pivot back toward regulating automation, but given that ADAS accidents continue to occur and garner a lot of attention, they may be unable to ignore it for long. For now, state-level regulators can attempt to fill the gap, as seen in the California DMV emails linked above, but their power is limited when compared to the federal government.

It’s hard to tell how all of this will end. Tesla seems uninterested in pulling back and testing their automation systems in more controlled environments (as other automakers do), and instead continues to push out updates and new tech to the public. Perhaps that level of bravado is to be expected from a company that made its name in challenging the existing paradigm, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that the Federal government has yet to step in and lay down clear rules on ADAS systems. For the sake of the promising safety-benefits of ADAS and automation overall those rules are needed soon, not only to protect the public, but to ensure confidence in these emerging technologies – something that would be to the benefit Tesla and other automakers.

P.S. – I’ll leave you with this – a perfect illustration of absurdity of how vehicle features are named.

Earlier this month, two Texas men died when the Tesla Model S they were traveling in crashed into a tree. However, just what led to the crash remains a point of contention between authorities and Tesla itself. The police have said that one passenger was found in the front passenger-side seat, while the other was in the back – meaning at the time of the accident, there was no one in the driver’s seat. That would indicate that the vehicle’s “Autopilot” advanced safety system was active, though last week Tesla CEO Elon Musk claimed that the company had data indicated the system was not in use at the time of the accident. The investigation is ongoing, and local police have said they will subpoena Tesla to obtain the vehicle data in question.

If the Texas case does turn out to have involved the Autopilot feature, it will be far from the first. In May of 2016, a Florida driver was killed when his Tesla, in Autopilot mode, crashed into the side of a semi-truck. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) investigation into that incident found no evidence of defects in the Tesla system, placing responsibility primarily on the driver, who wasn’t paying attention to the road while the vehicle operated under Autopilot. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), on the other hand, put more of the blame on Tesla for allowing the driver to misuse the Autopilot features – i.e. that the system didn’t disengage when being used outside of its recommended limits. Then Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx echoed this when he made a point to say that automakers like Tesla had a responsibility to insure consumers understand the limits of driver assistance systems. In March 2018, a California man was killed when his Tesla Model X SUV crashed into a highway safety barrier, leading to a NTSB investigation and a lawsuit from the driver’s family. A third driver died in a 2019 accident while Autopilot was enabled, this time again in Florida.

At issue here is not only the safety of the Autopilot technology, but also the way it has been marketed, and the willingness of drivers to push the system beyond its capabilities. At its core, Autopilot is an advanced driver-assistance system (ADAS), meaning it can take over a number of driving tasks and help protect drivers, but a human is supposed to remain focused on the driving task. Over the years Tesla has upgraded their vehicle’s software to recognize things like stoplights and stop signs, starting with beta tests and then making their way into every Tesla on the road that is capable of supporting the update (though there have been humorous issues with these roll outs – like vehicles confusing Burger King signs for stop signs). In late 2020, Tesla rolled out a “Full Self-Driving” update to select vehicles, which expanded autopilot’s operational domain to local streets (previously it was only useable on highways).

The NTSB has taken Tesla to task over Autopilot not only for the aforementioned 2016 crash, but also for a 2018 crash were a Tesla ran into the back of a stopped fire truck (no one was hurt). In that incident, Autopilot had been engaged for 13 minutes before the crash, and the driver had been distracted by their breakfast coffee and bagel. In its investigation of the 2019 Florida crash, the NTSB again cited Tesla’s failure to ensure Autopilot couldn’t be used in situations outside of its designed domain, and pointed to NHTSA’s failure to generate clear safety rules for ADAS technologies. In other cases Autopilot has continued to operate while a driver sleeps, or was passed out due to drinking (requiring police officers to use their cars to force the vehicle to a stop).

What remains in question is the ability of Tesla vehicles to monitor human drivers and keep them engaged in the driving process. A recent Consumer Reports test illustrates how easy it can be to trick the existing monitoring system and even allow a driver to slip into the passenger seat while in motion. Tesla’s system for testing driver interaction is via the steering wheel, while some other automaker systems, like GM’s Super Cruise, use more direct observation via eye tracking cameras.  It’s clear there is an issue with Autopilot that needs further investigation, but what have governments done in reaction to these issues, beyond the NTSB reports we noted? And what issues are raised by the way Tesla has marketed Autopilot to consumers? I’ll explore both of those issues in my next post.  

Last week, Claire wrote about how Fourth Amendment precedents and facial recognition technologies could allow law enforcement to use AVs and other camera-equipped transportation technologies as a means of surveillance. In that post she mentioned the case of Robert Julian-Borchak Williams, who last year was arrested by the Detroit Police Department based on faulty facial recognition evidence. The same day Claire’s post went up, law students from Michigan Law’s Civil Rights Litigation Initiative, along with the Michigan ACLU, sued the City of Detroit in Federal court for false arrest and imprisonment in violation of Mr. Williams’ rights under the US Constitution and the Constitution of the State of Michigan.

Given the growing use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement (including in the pursuit of the January 6th insurrectionists) cases of misidentification and wrongful arrests like Mr. Williams’ will no doubt continue to occur. Indeed, there is longstanding concern about facial recognition systems misidentifying people of color – due in large part to their designer’s failure to use diverse datasets (i.e. diverse faces) in the training data used to teach the system how to recognize faces. Beyond the digital era camera technology itself has built in biases, as it was long calibrated to better capture white skin tones. As cameras become more ubiquitous in our vehicles (including cameras monitoring the driver) issues of facial recognition will continue to collide with the emerging transportation technologies we regularly discuss here.

With all of that in mind, let’s turn to a recent case in Massachusetts that gives us a good example of how vehicle camera data can be used in a criminal investigation. On December 28, 2020, Martin Luther King, Jr. Presbyterian Church, a predominantly Black church in Springfield, MA, was destroyed by arson. Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice brought charges against a 44 year old Maine man, Dushko Vulchev, for the destruction of the church. Just how was the FBI able to identify Mr. Vulchev as a suspect, you ask? Thanks to video footage from a Tesla vehicle parked near the church on the night of the fire. When Mr. Vulchev damaged (and later stole) the Tesla’s tires, the vehicle used its onboard cameras to record him in clean, clear footage (you can see the photos in this Gizmodo post on the case). Tesla vehicles are equipped with a number of cameras and a feature called “Sentry Mode,” which remains turned on even when the vehicle is parked and otherwise inactive. If the vehicle is damaged, or a “severe threat” is detected, the car alarm will activate and the vehicle’s owner will be able to download video of the incident beginning 10 minutes before the threat was detected. In this case, this video footage was instrumental in identifying Mr. Vulchev and placing him near the church on the night of the fire.

While the FBI didn’t use facial recognition software in this case (as far as we know), it still illustrates how the quantity and quality of vehicle generated material will continue to be of interest in future investigations. How long before law enforcement proactively seeks video footage from any vehicle near a crime scene, even if that vehicle was otherwise uninvolved? If more OEM’s turn to Tesla’s camera-based security features, could we face a feature where every car on the block becomes a potential “witness?” Further, what happens when the data they produce is fed into faulty facial recognition software like the one that misidentified Mr. Williams? We live in an era of ever-more recording and our vehicles may soon be just another device watching our every move, whether are aware of it or not.  

In a New York Times article published this past Sunday, Ben Fried, a spokesman for TransitCenter, a transportation advocacy group, described mass transit systems across the country as being in “existential peril” due to continued financial issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the pandemic exploded into American cities in the spring, the disruption to mass transit has been visible in a number of ways. In April, New York’s subway system, which has been operating 24/7 for decades, moved to shut down from 1 am to 5 am, to allow for cleaning (though subway cars, at least, may be safer than other forms of transit, as they have air flow that can diminish the amount of viral particles in the air). Shutdowns, reduced services, and budget cuts are widespread across mass transit systems, and transit employees have faced continued danger of viral exposure and death. In March, Jason Hargrove, a Detroit bus driver, posted a video from his bus after a passenger coughed on him, and just a week after the video went up, he died from COVID. Back in New York, by September 100 members of Transit Workers Union Local 100 had died of the disease, while D.C.’s Metro got “lucky” and lost its first employee in August.

While their employees face physical danger, the transit systems themselves are also threatened. In June, New York’s MTA projected $10.3 billion in losses over the next two years – and warned that could lead to service cuts and fare hikes. In July San Francisco’s Muni suggested it will lose a majority of its’ bus lines to budget cuts. This month D.C.’s Metro put out a proposed budget that pushes the wait between trains up to 15-30 minutes, ends weekend subway service, and cuts half the agency’s bus lines. But while such measures may keep the systems afloat, they run the risk of further degrading mass transit and leading to a potential “death spiral.” The concern is that while service cuts will save money and allow transit systems to continue operating, those same cuts will drive down usage. Think about it – if the subway only comes every 30 minutes, are you more or less likely to use it for your commute? That could lead to further revenue declines, even as the world begins to open up again post-pandemic. Reductions in service are already hurting vulnerable populations, as it makes it harder for essential workers to get to their still-open workplaces and limits the ability of low income and disabled individuals to obtain food and medicine. In a report, advocacy group Transportation for America showed that the burden of transit cuts will fall disproportionally on minority communities, based on a model reflecting 50% reductions in service. Mass transit within cities and regions is not the only thing at risk – Amtrak has, at times during the pandemic, had 10% of their usual ridership, leading to possible cuts across the nation. Amtrak is an important means of connecting rural communities – who could lose their only non-automobile connection to the outside world.

So what can be done to save mass transit? In May, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a relief bill that included $15 billion for transit systems, but even if that had passed into law it would have been a bandage, not a cure. Federal money will be necessary, and the incoming Biden administration would seem inclined to give it – but whether it can get through a likely divided Congress remains to be seen. Without that money, however, it is hard to see how transit agencies can avoid service cuts and pull themselves out of the death spiral…

P.S. Mass transit is far from the only part of the transportation system desperate for funds. State departments of transportation are seeing less income from tolls and gas taxes, since fewer people are traveling. Pennsylvania’s department, for example, ran out of cash in late November, and was seeking legislative approval to borrow $600 million to keep their projects functioning.

This year we have tried our best to keep up with all of the ways that the COVID-19 pandemic continues to challenge our transportation system – though with so much news on so many fronts that is often a losing battle. This past summer I moved from Ann Arbor to Washington, D.C. and last week I made a return trip to Michigan for some work that had to be completed on campus. Having crossed the eastern part of the U.S. twice now, I have been relieved to see the vast majority of travelers using mask when in public rest stops in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Ohio – I saw maybe on noncompliant person the entire trip. In reflection on my travels, I want to use today’s blog to present a grab-bag of COVID stories from the past few months that I hadn’t had a chance to feature yet.

How COVID Changed Driving Behavior

All the way back in March, Phil noted in a blog post how COVID-related lockdowns shifted traffic and pollution levels in the U.S. For some people the pandemic has become an excuse to indulge their leadfoot. From January to August the Iowa State Patrol saw a 101% increase in the number of tickets for speeding 100 mph above the speed limit, and a 75% increase in tickets for drivers speeding 25 mph over the limit. Likewise, between March and August the California Highway patrol saw a similar 100% increase in tickets for speeding 100 mph over the limit, with other states reporting extreme speeding ticket increases as well. Some of this could be due to emptier roads inviting speed demons, combined with reductions in the number of officers on the road due to the pandemic.

Earlier in the year, the pandemic lockdowns and travel reductions did benefit one population – wildlife. Over the spring, when lockdowns were at their height and travel at record lows, California reported a 21% reduction in roadkill, while Idaho reported a 38% reduction and Maine a 44% fall. For a while it appeared that human roadway deaths would also fall as travel reduced – from March to May New York City went a record 58 days without a pedestrian fatality. Yet as time has gone on, the number of roadway fatalities has started to climb, or at least have not fallen comparable to reductions in travel. Looking at New York City again, while the number of vehicle miles driven in the city was down 40% between January and June of this year, the number of road fatalities only dropped 10%. Nationwide, while the total number of deaths on the road dropped 5%, the number of deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled actually rose from 1.02 in 2019 to 1.15 in 2020. Indeed July 2020 motor-vehicle fatality estimates saw an 11% increase over 2019.  Could it be that the drivers still on the road are the most dangerous? Could the increased number of speeders be goosing the number of deaths?

Ridesharing Continues to Take a Hit

In August I touched on the major ridership drops facing Uber and Lyft, as part of a blog post discussing the companies’ challenge to a new California law requiring them to treat their drivers as employees, rather than contractors. What I didn’t touch on was how those services and their drivers that are operating in the pandemic reacted to the health crisis. It wasn’t until May that Uber started requiring drivers to wear masks, though now they require both drivers and passengers to take selfies pre-ride to prove all parties are masked up, though in the case of riders the photos are only necessary if the rider was previously flagged for not wearing a mask. Uber has also supplied public health officials with usage data to assist with contract tracing. The company reported that in the first half of 2020 they received 560 data requests globally from public health departments, up from just 10 such requests in the entirety of 2019.

As cities and regions have opened back up, Uber ridership has been reportedly up in cities like New York, while still collapsed in San Francisco and LA. Given that nearly a quarter of the company’s rides from 2019 came from NYC, LA, SF, Chicago, and London, reduced demand on the west coast could be a major issue for them – even if the increased demand for takeout benefits their delivery service, UberEats (though delivery apps have proven to be less than profitable, even during the pandemic…).

Disinfecting Mobility

Another issue that has come to the forefront during the COVID crisis is how to clean vehicles and spaces to reduce the spread of illness. For mass transit half the battle is getting people to social distance and wear masks. In New York more than 170 transit workers have been assaulted while trying to enforce mask requirements, with 95% of those attacks taking place on buses. Meanwhile, companies like AV developer Voyage have adopted new tech to help keep their vehicles clean, which in Voyage’s case meant adopting ultraviolet lighting systems that sterilize their robotaxis in between passengers. In May, Ford rolled out new software for police vehicles they produce that uses the vehicle’s own heating system to bring the internal temperature in the car beyond 133 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 minutes, to disinfect high touch areas. In both of these cases the cleaning technology is dangerous to humans, meaning it’s unlikely to be rolled out to the average consumer. New mobility tech like drones have also been repurposed to help fight COVID, with a drone-based system being used to spray disinfectant in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which has been reopened for NFL games (though the number of fans that will actually be allowed in is unknown…).

That’s enough for today, though of course going forward we’ll continue to explore the many ways the ongoing crisis can challenge our transportation system – including upcoming looks at the future of rail and air travel.

This blog post kicks off a month of coverage focused on micromobility – check back tomorrow for a new journal article on micromobility laws nationwide!

A few weeks ago I wrote about how COVID-19 has disrupted the ridesharing industry, with Lyft and Uber struggling to find their place in our changing world. Those same disruptions have sent ripples through the various bikeshare and e-scooter services that make up the micromobility industry, though that segment of the greater mobility ecosystem may be better positioned to continue functioning during the ongoing pandemic.

First, the bad news – earlier in the pandemic, both Lime and Bird, major e-scooter operators, laid off staff, with Lime shedding 13% of its workforce and Bird laying off a full 30%. Part of this was due to the companies suspending some service in the face of the pandemic. In May, a huge number of bikes owned by JUMP, a Lime-owned dockless bikeshare service, were shown being destroyed in videos posted to social media.

Yet at the same time as those JUMP bikes were being destroyed, the U.S. found itself in the middle of a major bicycle shortage. Even now, months into the pandemic, bike producers are struggling to keep up with demand, though industry leaders acknowledge that they were very lucky to dodge the business losses they originally had feared as the pandemic began. Bicycles represent a convenient means of mobility, and as city dwellers sought to avoid public transit, they turned to their bikes to get them where they need to go. Indeed, in New York City, bike riding increased over 50% across the city’s bridges in March as the weather improved. Likewise, also in March, the city’s docked bikeshare, Citi Bike, saw a 67% increase in demand.

That last number is very interesting to me – even at some of the darkest points of New York’s outbreak, people were still flocking to use bikeshare. Indeed, of all the modes of mobility, micromobility seems the most pandemic-proof. To ride carefully all you really need to do is wipe the scooter or bike’s handlebars down, or generously sanitize/wash your hands after your ride. One company, Wheels, has even released rentable e-bikes with self-cleaning handlebars! And, of course, don’t forget your mask, which frankly could improve the ride experience as it shields your face from the wind. I’ll admit that other than my car, a Spin scooter is the only form of transportation I’ve used since the pandemic began – and I would consider myself more paranoid about COVID exposure than the majority of people.

Across the globe cycling and micromobility are a vital lifeline for people to traverse cities, and have proven to be more resilient than other modes of transport in the face of disasters – as seen in the 2017 Mexico City earthquake. I’ve written in the past about how cities are changing in the face of the pandemic, and stronger investment in the infrastructure to support micromobility and cycling needs to be a part of those changes.

So what can the micromobility industry itself do to encourage consumers to use their services, especially those who can’t afford for get their hands on a bike of their own? As often is the case in the mobility space (or at least our coverage of the space…) Michigan offers a potential path forward. At the end of June, the City of Detroit announced a new pilot program to connect essential workers with affordable e-bikes and scooters. In this case, two micromobility providers, Spin and MoGo, along with GM, leased scooters and e-bikes to the employees of hospitals, grocery stores, pharmacies, and manufactures – but only to those employees living within 6 miles of their workplace. Here, micromobility companies are getting their vehicles into the hands of people who need them the most – and giving them a reliable new way to get to work. While far from a full solution to the companies’ woes, it shows that they can reach customers while also providing a public service.

Like many industries, the automated vehicle industry faced setbacks due to this year’s many COVID-19 related local and regional lockdowns. In the spring, as the first wave of the virus spread, many companies had to stop testing to protect the human safety drivers and, in the case of Bay Area companies, follow local “shelter in place” orders. One partial exception to the rule was Waymo, which has been testing fully automated vehicles without safety drivers in Arizona, was able to keep some of those fully automated vehicles operating, since there were no drivers involved.

Beyond shutting down on-the-road testing, the AV industry has seen other COVID-related fallout. Due to the pandemic Ford delayed the launch of their robotaxi service to 2022, while GM’s Cruise unit laid off 8% of their staff in May. Yet desire to invest in the AV industry appears to remain strong. Zoox, which had (at least temporary) laid off its safety drivers in April, was bought by Amazon in June. Over the summer companies have begun to announce new testing sites – with Aurora testing automated semis and cars in Dallas-Fort Worth, and a Chinese AV developer, AutoX, launching a test around PayPal’s headquarters in San Jose, CA. Closer to home, Russian AV developer Yandex announced it would begin testing in Ann Arbor, their first test in the US, while May Mobility’s AV service in Grand Rapids will resume service at the end of August.

Indeed, two other developments in Michigan show that AV and mobility-related work is still an important focus, even during periods of major upheaval. In July the state of Michigan launched the Office of Future Mobility and Electrification, which is led by the “chief mobility officer.” The office’s structure and mission is based off work done by Detroit’s Office of Mobility Innovation – and hopes to recreate that office’s success at a state level. Part of the office’s mission will be to consolidate the work of 135 different councils, boards, and commissions spread out across 17 state agencies and departments – all of which have been working on some element of mobility. Earlier this month a second major announcement pointed to just how dedicated the state seems to be toward new mobility tech. On August 13th, a public-private partnership, named “CAVNUE,” was announced, with its goal being the creation of a 40-mile long testing corridor between Detroit and Ann Arbor. The corridor would be designed for testing both connected and automated vehicles as well as infrastructure. If this project is successful, it would be a major boon for the many companies in Southeast Michigan – and would signal a move to greater public testing of emerging mobility technology beyond more controlled environments like MCity.  

One lesson of the past year has been that the future can change very quickly, making rosy predictions of future AV successes harder to believe than in “the before time.” But these developments seem to show the AV industry finding its way forward. The future promise (and challenge) of AVs hasn’t diminished, even in our rapidly changing present.

Last week I discussed the California Superior Court decision that ruled that under California law Uber and Lyft must classify their ridesharing drivers as employees, rather than independent contractors. In response to that ruling, both companies had threatened to shut down service across the state. Yesterday, an appeals court issued a stay on that ruling, allowing both companies to continue operations, “pending resolution” of their appeal of the initial order. As I mentioned in my last blog post, the rideshare giant’s strategy currently appears to be “run out the clock,” until the November election, when California voters will decide on Proposition 22, which would establish a new classification for drivers. So for now those Californians who are willing to brave getting into a rideshare will be able to do so – while Uber and Lyft also explore more creative solutions, in case Prop 22 doesn’t pass.

Also on Thursday, another court case tied to Uber was just starting. Federal prosecutors in San Francisco filed criminal charges against Uber’s former security chief, Joe Sullivan. Sullivan is charged with two felony counts for failing to disclose a 2016 Uber data breach to federal investigators who were investigating similar earlier incidents that had occurred in 2014. In the 2016 incident, an outside hacker was paid $100,000 by Uber after the hacker revealed they had acquired access to the information of 57 million riders and drivers. Beyond the payment, Uber faced further criticism for failing to reveal the incident for a full year. Two of the hackers involved later plead guilty to charges related to the hack, and they are both awaiting federal sentencing. In 2018 Uber paid $148 million to settle a suit brought by state attorneys general related to the hack, while the FTC expanded a previous data breach settlement in reaction to the incident. Beyond the lack of transparency (to the public and law enforcement) Uber’s major misstep, at least in my view, is the payment itself. While many companies, Uber included, sponsor “bug bounties,” where outside security researchers are rewarded for reporting security flaws in a company’s products, this payment fell outside of that structure. Rather, it seems more like a ransom payment to less than scrupulous hackers. While Uber is far from the only company to have faced data breaches (or to have paid off hackers), this case should be a wake-up call for all mobility companies – a reminder that they have to be very careful with the customer data they are collecting, least they fall prey to a data breach, and, just as importantly, when a breach occurs, they have to face it with transparency, both to the public and investigators.  

The third Uber-related this month involves another former Uber employee, Anthony Levandowski, who was sentenced to 18 months in prison for stealing automated vehicle trade secrets from Google. In 2016, Levandowski left Google’s automated vehicle project to start his own AV tech company, which was in turn acquired by Uber. Levandowski was accused of downloading thousands of Google files related to AVs before he left, leading to a suit between Google’s Waymo and Uber, which was settled for roughly $250 million. There are a lot more details involved in the case, but it highlights some of the many challenges Uber, and the mobility industry at large, face.

Mobility and AVs are a huge business, with a lot of pressure to deliver products and receive high valuations in from investors and IPOs. That can incentivize misbehavior, whether it be stealing intellectual property or concealing data breaches. Given how central mobility technologies are to people’s daily lives, the public deserves to be able to trust the companies developing and deploying those technologies – something undermined by cases like these.

This week a California Superior Court ruled that transportation network company (“TNC”) titans Uber and Lyft have to classify drivers as employees, rather than independent contractors. The suit, spearheaded by the state’s Attorney General, sought to bring the two ride-sharing companies into compliance with Assembly Bill 5 (“AB 5”), which reclassified an array of “gig economy” workers as employees. When gig economy workers are reclassified as employees, they gain access to minimum wage requirements, overtime and sick leave, workers’ comp, disability insurance, and (importantly, in the COVID-19 era) unemployment insurance. Given those added benefits, employees can cost a company 20 to 30 percent more than an independent contractor, which is in part fueling opposition to bill and the ruling.

The decision comes after months of COVID-19 related disruptions that have cratered the ridesharing services at the core of Lyft and Uber’s business models. Lyft has reported a 61% revenue drop in the second-quarter of 2020, though it also reported an uptick in ridership in July. Uber reported a 75% drop in US ridership over April, May, and June of this year. Various lockdowns contributed to that drop – indeed, according to Uber’s own reports, nearly a quarter of its entire business comes from four US metro areas – NYC, Chicago, LA, San Francisco – along with its London operations. While the company has claimed encouraging signs from markets in nations like New Zealand, where the virus is under control, it remains to be seen if that success can be replicated in the US, where the virus is still spreading. In May, Uber announced two rounds of layoffs, cutting roughly 25% of its workforce (around 6,700 people), while Lyft cut 20% of its workforce in April.

Uber’s precarious financial situation makes its response to the Superior Court ruling all the more interesting – toying with a potential state-wide shutdown of their services, a least temporarily. In an interview, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi indicated that if the company’s appeal of this week’s ruling fails, Uber may have to shut down service as they adjust to the new rules – with reductions in service outside major markets upon the service’s reactivation. That shutdown period also times out with the November election, where California voters will decide on Proposition 22, which would exempt ridesharing drivers from being classified as employers under AB 5. In a New York Times op-ed, Khosrowshahi has proposed a “third way” between employee and independent contractor. This system would require all gig economy companies to establish funds to give their workers cash payments to be used for benefits, with payouts based on the hours worked. By requiring all gig companies to pay in, individuals working for multiple companies at the same time remain covered as they switch from app to app. In response to this proposal, critics point out that Uber could already establish such a system, at least for their own drivers, if it wanted to.

California is far from the only place where ridesharing companies are being pushed to change the relationship the companies have with their drivers. In June, Seattle passed a law requiring paid sick time for TNC drivers during the COVID-19 crisis (the leave requirement would expire 180 days after the crisis has ended…). The Seattle bill grants one paid day of leave for every 30 calendar days worked (either full or part time). In Washington, D.C., a Lyft driver has challenged the company’s lack of sick days, arguing drivers should be classified as employees under city law. Indeed, as the pandemic spread workers across the nation have spoken up about the difficulty of obtaining any sick leave from gig economy companies, even when they showed symptoms of COVID-19.

Unemployment insurance has been a major focus in these disputes, especially as drivers have been unable to work due to lockdowns or COVID-related reductions in demand. Traditionally, when drivers are classified as independent contractors, they lose the ability to claim unemployment, as their “employer” doesn’t pay into the system. At the start of the COVID crisis, Congress set up a separate unemployment fund for self-employed workers, though that fund ran out at the end of July. Even while the funds were available,  however, many gig workers had a hard time obtaining them, as existing state unemployment systems struggled to adapt to new rules while being slammed with claims from millions of people newly out of work. In California, the issues surrounding Assembly Bill 5 complicated the process, as the Federal funds were marked for people classified as independent contractors, which, thanks to AB 5, now did not include many gig workers. Drivers in New York, frustrated at their inability to obtain unemployment funds sued the state government, and have won, at initially, building their arguments off two earlier rulings that deemed gig workers eligible for unemployment benefits. Part of the disputes in both California and New York involve the lack of earnings data for drivers, which the state needs to calculate their unemployment eligibility, with a lawyer for the State of New York accusing Lyft and Uber of “playing games” to prevent turning over said data. Elsewhere, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled on a similar case – finding that an Uber driver was not “self-employed” for the purposes of unemployment benefits, while the Massachusetts A.G. has also recently brought suit to reclassify Uber and Lyft drivers as employees.

As the pandemic drags on, it’s hard to know what will happen next. The shortfalls of the current system have been made manifest – something clearly needs to change. Perhaps that could come in the form of Uber’s proposed “third way,” but such a system would need to be much better defined than it is now to prove it could offer a level of benefits comparable to those offered to employees. At the same time, if gig workers are to be counted as full employees, could that limit the entry of new gig companies? The massive growth of companies like Uber and Lyft was fueled in part by the cost savings that came from using independent contractors. Could new companies hope to cut into existing or new markets while also providing greater employee benefits?

For now, I’d say it’s more important to focus on the existing problem. Uber and Lyft are sophisticated technology companies, and both should be more than able to adapt their system to make their drivers employees. Given the COVID-19 related reductions in demand, the time seems right for them to make that change everywhere, not just in California. After all, according to their own plans, Uber won’t be dealing with human drivers forever, so future employee expenses will supposedly reduce with time. And while the pandemic may have harmed Uber’s ridesharing, it has helped grow its delivery service, UberEats. Even if automated vehicles replace gig drivers, they will be less able to replace workers for services like TaskRabbit or Instacart, where human labor is still central. And with expanded government-based safety nets seemingly a distant possibility, for the time being, workers will still need employer-based benefits of one form or another. Just as ridesharing companies disrupted the way people move through the world, it seems the time is right to disrupt the relationship between those companies and drivers that form the core of the TNC workforce.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues and our memories of the “before time” feel ever more distant, some have begun to wonder how this crisis and its aftermath could change how and where people live. Will people abandon expensive and dense major cities for smaller cities, suburbs or even small towns? On the one hand, I’ll admit that living in a small city like Ann Arbor has made weathering the lock down rather easy, which could lead credence to these ideas. Personally, I’ve had no issues finding supplies, or taking a walk without running into too many other people (though my apartment building’s shared laundry rooms are now a fraught location). Of course, Ann Arbor, a wealthy, educated college town with excellent access to medical care has a lot of resources other cities do not, so it may not be the best example.

Alternatively, there are those who argue our cities won’t actually change that much post-COVID-19, and there are even ways that the outbreak could make cities better (with the proper investment). Cities have survived disease outbreaks for millennia, and given that so much of our economy, culture, and infrastructure is built around cities it would be hard to seismically shift to some other model of living. Yet the economic upheaval that the pandemic has ushered in will no doubt influence where and how people live, and could last a good deal longer than the disease itself.

So what changes are well already seeing in cities, and what could that indicate about where we’re heading? In a number of cities, including New York, Seattle, and Oakland, are closing streets to open up more space for pedestrians and cyclists. Streets could also be closed to provide more outdoor space for restaurants, to help them reopen while preserving some measure of social distancing. New Zealand has gone as far as to make such street alterations national policy. Cities and towns in that nation are able to apply for funding to immediately expand sidewalks and modify streets, with the national government covering 90% of the cost. Some suggest these closures and modifications should be permanent – that we should take this opportunity to create more walkable and bikeable cities now, when we have the chance. In many ways these modified streets are similar to proposals for automated vehicle (“AV”) dominated cities. Supporters believe that wide adoption and deployment of AVs would mean more streets could have one lane of traffic in each direction, with the extra space turned over to alternative uses. The current demands of social distancing dovetail with those ideas – could cities use the current crisis to prepare themselves for an autonomous future? Given the difficulty of building new infrastructure, it may not be a bad idea to get ahead of the curve.

As noted by Phillip in a post earlier in the crisis, another effect of the global lockdown has been improved environmental conditions in cities around the globe. In India, for example, where cities have significant pollution problems, massive reductions in travel have led to clear skies. For the first time, we are seeing clear examples of what cleaner energy production could bring (pun intended). Such improvements could lead residents to demand continued reductions in emissions even after this crisis passes. These and other changes made to cities in the short term to cope with lockdowns and social distancing could dictate the future of urban design, but only if governments and citizens are willing to adopt them and protect them from being undone once the crisis passes.

P.S. Those of you who are interested in buying a bike to help navigate the new socially-distanced world may run into an issue – just like masks, cleaning supplies, and toilet paper, bikes are now becoming a scarce resource in some places.

For the past two years, the purpose of this blog and the Law and Mobility Program has been to peak around the corner and see what’s next. We have explored the legal and policy ramifications of emerging transportation technologies and tried to figure out how those technologies, be they automated vehicles, e-scooters, delivery drones, or even flying cars, will fit into our existing transportation and legal systems.

As it has with so many aspects of our lives, the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated our ability to look forward – the world to come is harder to predict. How close to “normal” will we get without a vaccine or treatment? If a significant portion of the workforce moves to remote work (Twitter, for example, is going to a permanent remote work option), what does that mean for our transportation system? Will people retreat from large, dense cities? As the pandemic disrupts state and local budgets, what will happen to transportation budgets? Right now, there are no clear answers.

Going forward, this blog and the Law and Mobility Program will remain focused on the future, with a keen eye on today. We will still explore new technologies and their ramifications, while also seeking a better understanding of how the current crisis is altering the mobility landscape. Later today we’ll publish the first of a series of blog posts dealing with some of the specific disruptions and changes that are already occurring. We hope you’ll enjoy these posts and, as always, invite you to join us in the conversation by submitting posts of your own – outside blog post submissions (of 500-1,000 words) are always welcome at JLMsubmissions@umich.edu (all submissions are evaluated for publication by our staff).

Last week, the United States declined to sign the “Stockholm Declaration,” an international agreement to set targets for reducing road fatalities. The reason given for not signing the declaration was the U.S.’s objection to items within the document that referenced climate change, equity, gender equality, and other issues. For context, here is the paragraph they are referencing:

[Signatories resolve to] “[a]ddress the connections between road safety, mental and physical health, development, education, equity, gender equality, sustainable cities, environment and climate change, as well as the social determinants of safety and the interdependence between the different [Sustainable Development Goals (“SDGs”)], recalling that the SDGs and targets are integrated and indivisible;”

This is an abdication of responsibility on the part of the American government, and ignores the real social, economic, and climate issues that are deeply tied to transportation. This piece is the first in a series, in which I will touch on how transportation, especially the emerging mobility technologies we usually cover, are entwined with issues that the current Administration sees as beyond the scope of road safety. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but rather a few examples offered as proof of the complexity of the issues. For today we’ll consider the environmental issues that are tied to road safety.

Road Safety and the Environment

Much has been made of how CAVs and other new mobility technologies can reduce greenhouse emissions via electrification of transportation and gained efficiencies through coordination between vehicles and infrastructure. The pursuit of safer roads via CAV deployment is also the pursuit of “greener” roads. This is especially important in the face of a recent study that found the use of rideshares like Lyft and Uber are increasing emissions – by an estimated 69%. The study found that rideshare usage shifted trips that would have been undertaken by mass transit, biking, or walking. Any discussion of the future of road safety, especially in cities, will have to include discussions of ridesharing, and how to better integrate biking, walking, and things like micro-mobility services into our streets, an integration that has important environmental implications.

The deployment of electric vehicles, something that appears to be a goal of major auto manufacturers, is another area in which road safety and the environment meet. To start with, these vehicles reduce overall vehicle emissions, which themselves are a health hazard. While not traditionally part of the road safety discussion, recent studies have shown that outdoor air pollution reduces the average life expectancy world-wide by almost 3 years. Including emissions in the safety conversation is especially important as vehicles are now the largest carbon producers.

Electric vehicles have other positive safety features – their large batteries, for example, make them less likely to roll over in an accident. On the other hand, electric vehicles traveling at low speeds can be harder for pedestrians and others to hear. In response, NHTSA has now mandated that EVs be equipped to generate artificial sound to warn those around them.

These are just a few ways in which environmental issues cross over into road safety, as recognized by the signatories to the Stockholm Declaration, and it is imperative the U.S. government take them into consideration rather than dismissing them outright.

Over the last few years, emerging mobility technologies from CAVs to e-scooters have become the targets of malicious hackers. CAVs, for example, are complicated machines with many different components, which opens up many avenues for attack. Hackers can reprogram key fobs and keyless ignition systems. Fleet management software used worldwide can be used to kill vehicle engines. CAV systems can be confused with things as simple a sticker on a stop sign. Even the diagnostic systems within a vehicle, which are required to be accessible, can be weaponized against a vehicle by way of a $10 piece of tech.

For mobility-as-a-service (“MaaS”) companies, the security of their networks and user accounts is also at threat. In 2015 a number of Uber accounts were found for sale on the “dark web,” and this year a similar market for Lime scooter accounts popped up. Hacking is not even required in some cases. Car2Go paused service in Chicago after 100 vehicles were stolen by people exploiting the company’s app (the company is now ending service in the city, though they say it’s for business reasons).

The wireless systems used for vehicle connectivity are also a target. On faction in the current battle over radio spectrum is pushing cellular technology, especially 5G tech as the future of vehicle-to-vehicle communication. While 5G is more secure than older wireless networks, it is not widespread in the U.S., leaving vulnerabilities. As some companies push for “over-the-air” updates, where vehicle software is wirelessly updated, unsecure wireless networks could lead to serious vehicle safety issues.

So what can be done to deal with these cybersecurity threats? For a start, there are standard-setting discussions underway, and there have been proposals for the government to step up cybersecurity regulation for vehicles. A California bill on the security of the “internet-of-things” could also influence vehicle security. Auto suppliers are putting cybersecurity into their development process. Government researchers, like those Argonne National Labs outside Chicago, are looking for vulnerabilities up and down the supply chain, including threats involving public car chargers. Given the ever-changing nature of cybersecurity threats, the real solution is “all of the above.” Laws and regulations can spark efforts, but they’ll likely never be able to keep up with evolving threats, meaning companies and researchers will always have to be watchful.

P.S. – Here is a good example of how cybersecurity threats are always changing. In 2018, security researchers were able to hack into a smartphone’s microphone and use it to steal user’s passwords, using the acoustic signature of the password. In other words, they could figure out your password by listening to you type it in.

As audiences worldwide await the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, a few recent developments in transportation technology are taking cues (directly or indirectly) from the technology of a galaxy far, far away.

Last week, the opening ceremony of a new ride at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, the Star Wars themed land at Walt Disney World, included actual flying X-Wing starfighters, built from Boeing-made drones. There are two important things to take from this development: (1) Boeing is apparently now a supplier for General Leia Organa’s Resistance, and; (2) Boeing is confident enough in their “Cargo Air Vehicle” drone to allow a highly-publicized public display. The all-electric Cargo Air Vehicle flew for the first time earlier this year, and is designed to carry up to 500 lbs. of cargo at a time. I’ve written about aerial delivery drones before, in October and September, but this new Boeing vehicle has a much higher carrying capacity than the smaller drones those articles focused on. Of course, a highly controlled environment like a major theme park is perhaps not as challenging an environment as the vehicles would face elsewhere, the visibility of this deployment raises interesting questions about Boeing’s future plans for the testing and deployment of the vehicles.

Another emerging technology that is attempting to recreate the Star Wars universe here on Earth is flying taxis. A number of prototype flying taxis have been revealed over the past few years, though none have the smooth lines of those seen in Star Wars, or the retro-styling of another sci-fi mainstay, the Jetson’s car. In June, Uber showed off the design of their proposed air taxi, an electric vehicle they will be testing in LA and Dallas in 2020. Industry boosters see a future with many such vehicles crisscrossing major metro areas (hmmm…where have I seen that before…). However, there are a number of challenges:

  • How do you make them cost-effective? Aircraft are expensive, and the proposed air taxis are no different. So how do you make them efficient enough to justify their cost? Will making them electric do the trick, or will the cost of batteries and other equipment sink the concept?
  • What is the economy of scale for this type of transportation? Right now, Uber offers helicopter flights from Manhattan to JFK Airport for $200-225 a person. If an air taxi ride has similar costs, how many people will really take advantage of them?
  • What infrastructure will they need? Where are they going to land? Uber has mocked-up glossy “skyport” designs, which they say will combine street-level mobility with their aerial offerings, but how many of these will be necessary if more than one company operates in a given metro area? Will skyports proliferate? In some cities, like London, there is already a scramble for roof space to transform into landing pads for air taxis and drones.
  • How do we regulate these vehicles? Between the aerial taxis and delivery drones, the skies would seem to be primed for traffic jams. Does the FAA retain full control over everything flying, or will states and even municipalities have to step in to help regulate a proliferation of flying vehicles?

Just like connected and automate vehicles, air taxes mix promising new technology with a sci-fi edge. It remains to be seen if air taxis will actually prove cost-effective enough to function for anyone other than the wealthy, but if Disney World’s use of drone X-Wings is any indication, a new hope for aerial vehicles may be just around the corner.

P.S. – Those who are skeptical of self-driving vehicles may have found a new patron saint in The Mandalorian, who turns down a droid-piloted speeder in favor of one driven by a person (also, apparently Uber service in the Outer Rim involves flutes?). To be fair, Mando later has some issues with his adorable companion playing with the controls of his ship, proving that humanoid controlled vehicles are still prone to problems (Han could have told him that).

October 2019 Mobility Grab Bag

Every month brings new developments in mobility, so let’s take a minute to breakdown a few recent developments that touch on issues we’ve previously discussed in the blog:

New AV Deployments

This month saw a test deployment of Level 4 vehicles in London, which even allowed members of the public to be passengers (with a safety driver). Meanwhile, in Arizona, Waymo announced it will be deploying vehicles without safety drivers, though it appears only members of their early-access test group will be riding in them for now. We’ve written a lot about Waymo, from some early problems with pedestrians and other drivers, to the regulations placed on them by Arizona’s government, to their potential ability to navigate human controlled intersections.

Georgia Supreme Court Requires a Warrant for Vehicle Data

This Monday, the Georgia Supreme Court, in the case of Mobley v. State, ruled that recovering data from a vehicle without a warrant “implicates the Fourth Amendment, regardless of any reasonable expectations of privacy.” The court found that an investigator entering the vehicle to download data from the vehicle’s airbag control unit constituted “physical intrusion of a personal motor vehicle,” an action which “generally is a search for purposes of the Fourth Amendment under the traditional common law trespass standard.” Given the amount of data that is collected currently by vehicles and the ever-increasing amount of data that CAVs can and will collect, rulings like this are very important in dictating how and when law enforcement can obtain vehicle data. We’ve previously written about CAVs and the 4th Amendment, as well as other privacy implications of CAVs, both in regards to government access to data and the use of CAV data by private parties.  

Personal Cargo Bots Could Bring Even More Traffic to Your Sidewalk

In May, as part of a series on drones, I wrote about a number of test programs deploying small delivery bots for last-mile deliveries via the sidewalk. A recent Washington Post article highlights another potential contender for sidewalk space – personal cargo bots. Called “gita” the bot can travel at up to 6 mph as it uses it’s onboard cameras to track and follow its’ owner, via the owner’s gait. The bot’s developers see it as helping enhance mobility, as it would allow people to go shopping on foot without being concerned about carrying their goods home. For city-dwellers that may improve grocery trips, if they can shell out the $3,000+ price tag!

Even More Aerial Drones to Bring Goods to Your Door

Last month, as part two the drone series, I looked at aerial delivery drones. In that piece I mentioned that Google-owned Wing would be making drone deliveries in Virginia, and Wing recently announced a partnership with Walgreens that will be part of that test. Yesterday Wired pointed out that UPS has made a similar deal with CVS – though it remains to be seen if the drones will have to deliver the infamously long CVS receipts as well. As Wired pointed out, drugstores, since they carry goods that could lead to an emergency when a home runs out of them (like medication and diapers), speedy air delivery could fill a useful niche. So next time you’re home with a cold, you may be able to order decongestant to be flown to your bedside, or at least to the yard outside your bedroom window.

P.S. – While not related to any past writings, this article  is pretty interesting – Purdue scientists took inspiration from the small hairs on the legs of spiders to invent a new sensor that can ignore minor forces acting on a vehicle while detecting major forces, making it easier for CAVs and drones to focus computing power on important things in their environment without getting distracted.

While AVs have a lot of technological leaps to make before widespread deployment, developers and governments alike also need to also consider the human factors involved, including good old fashioned human fear. Earlier this year, a AAA study showed that almost three out of four (71%) Americans are afraid to ride in an AV. This is a 10% rise in apprehension from earlier studies, a trend that could be connected to the publicity around the 2018 Uber crash in Tempe, Ariz., where a test vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian. This lack of trust in AVs alone should be concerning to developers, but in some places that lack of trust has turned into outright enmity.

Test deployments, like the one undertaken by Waymo in Arizona, have become the targets of anger from drivers and pedestrians, including an incident where man pointed a gun at a passing Waymo test vehicle, in full view of the AV’s safety driver. In that case, the man with the weapon (who was arrested) claimed he hated the vehicles, specifically citing the Uber crash as a reason for his anger. Waymo test vehicles have been also been pelted with rocks, had their tires slashed, and motorists have even tried to run them off the road. The incidents have led to caution on the part of Waymo, who has trained their drivers on how to respond to harassment (including how to spot vehicles that are following them, as witnessed by a group of Arizona Republic reporters last December). Arizona is not the only place where this has happened – in California, during a 3 month period of 2018, 2 of the 6 accidents involving AVs were caused by other drivers intentionally colliding with the AV.

So where is this anger coming from? For some in Arizona, it was from feeling that their community was being used as a laboratory, with them as guinea pigs, by AV developers. Ironically, that line of thought has been cited by a number of people who currently oppose the deployment of test AVs in and around Silicon Valley. It’s rather telling that the employees of many of the companies pushing for AV testing don’t want it to occur in their own towns (some going as far as to threaten to “storm city hall” if testing came to Palo Alto…). Other objections may stem from people seeing AVs as a proxy for all automation, and the potential loss of jobs that entails.

So what can be done to make people trust AVs, or at least accept them enough to not run them off the road? On the jobs front, in June a group of Senators introduced a bill to have the Labor Department track jobs being displaced by automation. Responding to the changes brought on by automation is a center point of Democratic Presidential Candidate Andrew Yang’s campaign, and the issue has been raised by other candidates as well. The potential of automation to take away jobs is a long-standing issue made more visible by AVs on the road, and one that won’t be solved by AV proponents alone. What AV supporters have done and can continue to do is attempt to educate the public on now only potential befits of AV deployment (which PAVE, an industry coalition has done), but also better explain just how AV technology works. At least part of the AV fear stems from not understanding how the tech actually operates, and transparency in that vein could go a long way. Future test projects also need to be sure to get input from communities before they start testing, to ease the feeling of AVs being imposed upon an unwilling neighborhood. A recent debate over AV testing in Pittsburgh, where the city obtained funds for community outreach only after approving testing, leading to push back from community members, is a good example of how a proper pre-testing order-of-operations is vital.

For now, there is clearly a lot of room for public engagement and education. Developers should take advantage of this period where AVs are in the public eye without being widely deployed to build trust and understanding, so that once the vehicles start appearing everywhere they are met with open arms, or at least tolerated, rather than ran off the road. After all, while AVs themselves may not feel road rage, it’s already clear they can be victims of it.

P.S. – If you’re interested in learning more about negative reactions to robots, a good starting point is this NY Times article from January 2018.

The European Union recently adopted new rules to help consumers repair household appliances like refrigerators and televisions. The rules require manufacturers to provide spare parts for years after sale – the number of years depending on the device. The “Ecodesign Directive” is intended to help protect the environment by extending the life of consumer appliances. The regulation also applies to servers, requiring firmware updates for 7 years post-production. These regulations are part of a larger battle over consumers’ right to repair their belongings, including vehicles. Vehicles are already part of the right to repair discussion, and the deployment of technically complicated CAVs will ramp up that conversation, as some manufacturers seek to limit the ability of individuals to repair their vehicles.

One current battle over the right to repair is taking place in California. In September of last year, the California Farm Bureau, the agricultural lobbying group that represents farmers, gave up the right to purchase repair parts for farm equipment without going through a dealer. Rather than allowing farmers to buy parts from whomever they’d like, California farmers have to turn to equipment dealers, who previously were unwilling to even allow farmer’s access to repair manuals for vehicles they already owned. A big part of the dispute stems from companies like John Deere placing digital locks on their equipment that prevent “unauthorized” repairs – i.e. repairs done by anyone other than a John Deere employee. The company even made farmers sign license agreements forbidding nearly all repairs or modifications, and shielding John Deere from liability for any losses farmers may suffer from software failures. Some farmers resorted to using Ukrainian sourced firmware to update their vehicle’s software, rather than pay to hire a John Deere technician. The California case is especially ironic, as the state has solid right to repair laws for other consumer goods, requiring companies to offer repairs for electronics for 7 years after production (though companies like Apple have been fighting against the state passing even more open right to repair laws).

In 2018, supporters of the right to repair were boosted by a copyright decision from the Librarian of Congress, which granted an exception to existing copyright law to allow owners and repair professionals to hack into a device to repair it. The exception is limited, however, and doesn’t include things like video game consoles, though its’ language did include “motorized land vehicles.”

So how could battles over the right to repair influence the deployment of CAVs? First off, given the amount of complicated equipment and software that goes into CAVs, regulations like those recently adopted in the EU could help extend the lifespan of a vehicle. Cars last a long time, with the average American vehicle being 11.8 years old. Right to repair laws could require manufactures to supply the parts and software updates needed to keep CAVs on the road. New legislation could protect consumer access to the data within their vehicle, so they don’t have to rely on proprietary manufacturer systems to know what’s going on inside their vehicle. A 2011 study of auto repair shops showed a 24% savings for consumers who used a third-party repair shop over a dealership, so independent access to data and spare parts is vital to keeping consumer maintenance costs down. People are very used to taking their cars to independent repair shops or even fixing them at home, and many consumers are likely to want to keep their ability to do so as CAVs spread into service.

P.S. – Two updates to my drone post from last week:

Update 1 – University of Michigan (Go Blue!) researchers have demonstrated a drone that can be used to place shingles on a roof, using an interesting system of static cameras surrounding the work-site, rather than on-board cameras, though it remains to be seen how many people want a nail gun equipped drone flying over their head…

Update 2 – UPS has been granted approval to fly an unlimited number of delivery drones beyond line-of-sight, though they still can’t fly over urban areas. They have been testing the drones by delivery medical supplies on a North Carolina hospital campus.

Last week I covered the various companies who are seeking to use aerial drones to deliver goods to your door. Today, in the third part to my series on delivery (you’ll find Part 1 here, and an even earlier post on delivery, from December of 2018, here), I’m going to look at recent proposals to use automated vehicles to deliver consumer goods.

As an introduction, I’m going to include a paragraph from that December 2018 post as an introduction to some of the ways automated vehicles are being used to make deliveries :

The potential for CAVs as delivery vehicles is already being tested by companies like Domino’s and Kroger, among others. Earlier this year Toyota announced delivery partnerships with Amazon and Pizza Hut, and Waymo’s CEO recently highlighted it as an area of opportunity.  This week the New York Times profiled Nuro, the start-up working with Kroger to test robotic delivery cars in Scottsdale, Ariz. Nuro’s vehicles are designed in-house, and look like “toasters-on-wheels,” and are currently followed everywhere they go by human safety drivers in conventionally driven “shadow car.” When the vehicle stops for a delivery, customers enter a PIN code into a small touch pad to open the compartment containing their order. The current charge for same-day delivery using the system is around $6. Ford has also flagged the delivery market as an area they’d like to explore, citing projections that by 2026 the last-mile delivery market for CAVs will hit $130 billion.

Don’t Forget to Tip Your (Robotic) Delivery Driver – Dec. 21, 2018

Since that post, Domino’s has announced a partnership with Nuro as well, with plans to test in Houston at some point this year. Walmart has also jumped in on the action – partnering with another AV developer, Gatik. For now Walmart’s test is limited to a 2-mile route between two of their stores in the company’s hometown of Bentonville, Arkansas. Why the interest? In part because of the potential cost savings – a recent Ford estimate calculates AVs could reduce the cost per mile for deliveries from $2.50 to $1. No doubt the combination of lower costs and ever-greater demand for delivery is a powerful motivator, pushing companies to explore not only AVs, but also drones and delivery bots, as discussed in Parts I and II of this series.

Beyond last-mile deliveries, there is a great deal of interest in automating semi-trucks and other large delivery vehicles. One company, TuSimple, is working with both the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) and UPS to move packages between cities. Interestingly, in UPS’ case, the company only announced the partnership after TuSimple had already been delivering goods for months – which seems to indicate the program is not just a grab for positive PR. The USPS’ test was more limited, running for two-weeks and five round trips. All of the trips included a safety driver and an engineer, and both tests were carried out in the Southwest. Meanwhile, in Sweden, a completely driverless electric truck was deployed in May, a global first. Given a nation-wide shortage of truck drivers (a recent estimate puts the U.S. deficit at roughly 60,000 drivers), automated trucks present a solution that doesn’t overly disrupt a truck-heavy commercial delivery system.

But what would the wide-spread adoption of AVs as part of the delivery ecosystem mean? We can already see that the demand for faster and faster delivery is taking its toll. Recently, the NY Times and Buzzfeed News both published articles detailing the human cost of Amazon’s push for same or next-day delivery. Under-trained drivers pushed to the limit have killed people in seemingly avoidable accidents that don’t often happen with more highly-trained delivery drivers (like those used by the USPS, UPS, and FedEx). Amazon has avoided liability by using a number of third-party companies as contractors, making those companies, and not Amazon, responsible for accidents. AVs would certainly be safer for the public, as they wouldn’t fall prey to the pressures of human drivers, though that does nothing to alleviate the pressures on the human delivery people, who would still be needed to move goods from the vehicle to a door. At the same time, Amazon may continue to escape liability, if the AVs remain owned by third parties. There is also the greater question of the environmental impact of the growing number of delivery vehicles on the road (not to mention the waste created by packing materials and shipping boxes). I’ll leave a greater discussion about those issues to future posts and other forums, but those questions, among so many others (privacy, cybersecurity, and traffic management among them) are important to consider as automated delivery vehicles of all kinds begin to fill our streets and skies.

P.S. – In a follow up to last week’s blog, the USPS has stated to investigate the use of aerial drones, and is now seeking information from drone operators and developers.

This is the much-delayed second part in a series of posts I started earlier this year. In that first post I discussed how companies are experimenting with small delivery robots that crawl along sidewalks to deliver goods right to your door. However, the sidewalk is not the only place where delivery drones may soon be found, as many companies are interested in using aerial drones to bring their products right to consumers.

In April, Wing, a division of Google parent company Alphabet, was given approval to start delivering goods via drone in Canberra, Australia. At launch, the drones were delivering food, medicine, and other products from 12 local businesses. This formal launch came after a trial period that ran for 18 months and 3,000 deliveries. Also in April, Wing received an FAA certification typically used for small airlines, as they begin to plan U.S. based tests, again with the intent to partner with local businesses. Not to be left behind, in June Amazon revealed it’s own delivery drone, which is indented to bring good directly from their warehouses to nearby customers within 30 minutes. Also in June, Uber announced a plan to partner with McDonalds to test delivery drones in San Diego. In Ohio, a partnership between the Air Force and the state government will allow drones to test outside of line-of-sight (a range that most civilian drones are currently limited to by the FAA). One company that intends to take part in the Ohio testing is VyrtX, which is looking to use drones to deliver human organs for transplant. 

But just what would wider use of such delivery drones mean for society? What would it mean to live in a world with robots buzzing around above our heads? In the Australian tests there were complaints about noise, with some residents claiming the sound of the machines caused them significant distress. In January of this year an unidentified drone shut down London’s Heathrow Airport, showing what can happen when drones wander into places they’re not welcome. In February of this year NASA announced two tests of “urban drone traffic management,” one in Texas, and the other in Nevada. Such a system would no doubt be necessary before widespread deployment of any of the systems so far proposed – to prevent incidents like the one in London.   

There is also a major privacy concern with drones collecting data as they fly above homes and businesses. This concern extends beyond just what privately owned drones may find, but also what law enforcement could collect. In Florida v. Riley, a 1988 case, the Supreme Court found that there is not reasonable expectation of privacy from aircraft (in that case, a police helicopter) flying in navigable airspace above a person’s home, when the air craft is flying within FAA regulations. So drones would provide a useful tool for investigations, and one that is limited only by FAA rules.

There are a lot of unanswered questions about delivery drones – and given the highly-regulated nature of all forms of air travel, the federal government, via the FAA, currently has a lot of power over just what can go on in U.S. airspace. What remains to be seen is if this regulatory structure will stifle drone development or instead insure that any market for delivery drones is developed deliberately, rather than ad hoc, with an emphasis on safety.

P.S. – A brief follow-up to my last article – Ford recently partnered with Agility Robotics on a new form of last mile delivery bot, a bipedal unit designed to carry up to 40 pounds. Could it become the C-3PO to the R2-D2-like bots already in testing?

All the way back in December, I wrote about how various companies, including Amazon (in partnership with Toyota), Postmates, Domino’s and Kroger were all working on using CAVs and drones to deliver goods to consumers. Since then there have been a number of news stories on similar projects across the globe, which deserve some attention, as you’ll see in this, the first of three posts:

On the Ground

In my December post I talked about Postmates’ testing of delivery robots that could bring products directly to your door. This winter similar ‘bots were deployed on the campuses of the University of the Pacific (sponsored by PepsiCo), and George Mason University (via start-up Starship Technologies and food-services giant Sodexo). College campuses, which tend to feature greater walkability and an always snack-craving populace, seem to be the perfect testing ground for such systems. And the robots seem to have made a difference in the eating habits, at least at George Mason – with an additional 1,500 breakfast orders being delivered via robot. This may be due to the fact the robots were integrated into the campus meal plan, meaning students weren’t just able to order snacks, but could order full meals and pay for them via their meal plan.  

While these delivery services may be seen as saviors to hung-over college students in need of a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich, the expansion of such programs does raise issues. Just as ridesharing has changed the way cities have to manage curb space, delivery ‘bots raise questions of sidewalk management. Just how much of public space should we cede to commercial use? How will the ‘bots be programmed to “share the road” with pedestrians. Of course, that may not be as big of an issue in more sprawling American cites that don’t have the same density of foot traffic. They’ll also have to content with being messed with by humans, as was the case in this video, where a ‘bot’s cameras were intentionally covered in snow (there is a happy ending, as seen in the footage – after a good Samaritan cleaned off  the camera the ‘bot continues on its way, after saying “thank you!” to its’ human helper). In an attempt to get ahead of these issues San Francisco banned sidewalk delivery ‘bots in 2017, and has only slowly opened up room for testing. Will other cities follow suit? Or will they open the floodgates? Currently, the California DMV is considering new rules on delivery ‘bots and car-sized autonomous delivery vehicles, so look for a follow-up blog once those are out.

Given my continued interest in data collection and privacy, (an interest echoed in more recent blog posts by Kevin – available here, here, and here) I’d be remiss to not flag those issues here. (those issues also come up in the context of aerial deliveries, discussed in our next post). Not only would sidewalk based delivery ‘bots collect data on the items you order and when, they could potentially collect data about your home or its surrounding environment (think back to when Google was caught collecting wi-fi data with its’ Street View cars).

In our next post – aerial delivery drones!

This fall we’ve spent a fair amount of time talking about how connected and automated vehicles (CAVs) will change the structure of our cities, from the curb, to public transit, and beyond. In my last post before the holidays, I want to take a look at how CAVs could change the way goods are transported and delivered within cities. While they probably won’t reach Santa-levels of delivery efficiency, CAVs may help make last-mile deliveries more efficient (and could help fill the current shortage of truck drivers in the US, but that’s a subject for another day).

CAVs are already being tested as delivery vehicles by companies like Domino’s and Kroger, while earlier this year Toyota announced delivery partnerships with Amazon and Pizza Hut, and Waymo’s CEO recently highlighted it as an area of opportunity.  This week the New York Times profiled Nuro, the start-up working with Kroger to test robotic delivery cars in Scottsdale, Ariz. Nuro’s vehicles are designed in-house, and look like “toasters-on-wheels.” Currently they followed everywhere they go by human safety drivers in conventionally driven “shadow car,” since the vehicles are still in testing. When the vehicle stops for a delivery, customers enter a PIN code into a small touch pad to open a compartment containing their order. The current charge for same-day delivery using the system is around $6. Ford has also flagged the delivery market as an area they’d like to explore, citing projections that, by 2026, the last-mile delivery market for CAVs will hit $130 billion.

But the roads are not the only path automated vehicles may soon tread in their mission to bring you your takeout order. A number of companies, including Postmates, are working on delivery robots that will cruse down the sidewalk and roll right up to your door. Last year I even personally witnessed Postmates’ bot rolling along the streets of Washington. As exciting as it would be to have R2-D2’s cousin deposit an order of egg rolls on your doorstep, the deployment of delivery bots raises an interesting question of how much space we’re willing to give up to automated devices. The sidewalk is a human dominated space, and, especially in cities, is already busy with foot traffic. Will people be willing to cede some of this space to a robot? Yet another question that city regulators and individual citizens will be forced to answer as automation makes greater inroads to our daily lives.

P.S. – Last week a delivery robot caught fire in Berkeley, leading some locals to build a memorial in its honor.

The Battle For the Curb

Recently, Kevin wrote about how CAVs could alter the shape of cities. While CAV deployment is still in its infancy, the boom in ride sharing is already changing the design of cities. In Washington, D.C. the city government has announced the creation of five pickup and drop off zones that are reserved for ride shares 24 hours a day. The zones are also used for commercial loading and unloading, and are located near highly trafficked areas.

The creation of these zones in D.C. are part of a greater discussion of how cities use the curb. Right now, there is a lot of competition for the curb, from parking meters, to bike lanes, to drop off zones like the ones in D.C. And companies like Coord have started to keep track of everything that is going on near the curb, with an intent to build out a database that can be used by city planners and anyone else interested in what’s happening at street level. Any changes that CAVs make to cities will no doubt start at the curb – which means city governments need to figure out just what’s going to happen on the curb. Will cities be willing to give up their venue from street parking? Or will a boom in AVs cause that revenue to disappear on its own?

In the U.S., Thanksgiving represents the busiest travel period of the year, with AAA predicting that this year 54 million people will travel 50 miles or more before sitting down for turkey and stuffing. So how will CAVs and other mobility innovations change how we travel, not just at Thanksgiving, but yearlong? Lets take a look at a few recent stories that could point the way:

Waymo’s Self-Driving Service Hits the Bigtime

Back in August, Dan mentioned some issues Waymo’s automated vans had run into in Phoenix. Those issues don’t seem to have slowed the Alphabet (Google) owned company, as they have announced (as noted by Kevin) the launch of commercial service in December. The company is planning a slow roll out, and some cars will still have backup drivers, but by the Christmas travel season, some people in Arizona will be able to hail a driverless taxi to shuttle them to the airport.

Multimodality – Instead of a Taxi to the Airport, How About an E-Scooter and a Bus?

Uber has recently started to personalize suggestions on how to complete a trip. Depending on the distance to be traveled, the app will suggest you use a JUMP bike instead. Travelers in select cities can use Citymapper to plan trips across rideshares and public transit. In Chicago, for example, the app coordinates city buses, Divy bike shares, the ‘L’ system, and commuter rail. In London, Citymapper users can even hail a rideshare via the app’s own fleet. Meanwhile, bike and scooter startup Lime is expanding their services to include cars on their platform, and plans to deploy up to 500 cars in Seattle by the end of the year.

These companies are far from the only parties trying to synchronize how we use various mobility services. While the promise of a single app for all our mobility needs is yet to be fulfilled, the momentum is clearly there. Such an app would further enhance the congestion (and environmental) benefits that are projected to come with wider adoption of CAVs. While CAVs can better coordinate the cars that are on the road, multimodal programs can take even more cars off the road by pointing users to more efficient public transit or bikes/scooters.

Leaving Car Ownership Behind (Eventually…)

While some drivers may use self-driving cars and multimodality services to supplement their personal vehicles, there is an increasing push to replace vehicle ownership altogether. Lyft has launched a “ditch your car” challenge in a number of cities, encouraging users to try to live without their vehicles for a month. They’ve also launched a subscription service, offering 30 rides (up to $15 each) a month for $299.

Not interested in completely ditching your car? GM’s Maven platform lets you rent out your own vehicle, and is expanding in 2019 to include non-GM vehicles. Or you can opt for a more old-fashioned carpool, facilitated by Waze, which is slowly expanding a service to connect potential carpool members. So by next Thanksgiving, you may be able to snag a Waze carpool while leaving your personal vehicle behind to earn a little extra cash on Maven.

The point of this round up is not to provide a commercial for these platforms, but to highlight the ongoing disruption of the way people move through the world, a disruption that will only continue as CAVs reach greater deployment.

Two recent news stories build interestingly on my recent blog post about CAVs and privacy. The first, from Forbes, detailing law enforcement use of “reverse location” orders, where by investigators can obtain from Google information on all Google users in a given location at a given time. This would allow, for example, police to obtain data on every Google account user within a mile of a gas station when it was robbed. Similar orders have been used to obtain data from Facebook and Snapchat.

Look forward a few years and it’s not hard to imagine similar orders being sent to the operators of CAVs, to obtain the data of untold numbers of users at the time of a crime. The problem here is that such orders can cast far too wide a net and allow law enforcement access to the data of people completely uninvolved with the case being investigated. In one of the cases highlighted by Forbes, the area from which investigators requested data included not only the store that was robbed, but also nearby homes. The same situation could occur with CAVs, pulling in data from passengers completely unrelated to a crime scene who happen to have been driving nearby.

The other story comes from The Verge, which covers data mining done by GM in Los Angeles and Chicago in 2017.  From the article:

GM captured minuted details such as station selection, volume level, and ZIP codes of vehicle owners, and then used the car’s built-in Wi-Fi signal to upload the data to its servers. The goal was to determine the relationship between what drivers listen to and what they buy and then turn around and sell the data to advertisers and radio operators. And it got really specific: GM tracked a driver listening to country music who stopped at a Tim Horton’s restaurant. (No data on that donut order, though.)

That’s an awful lot of information on a person’s daily habits. While many people have become accustomed (or perhaps numb) to the collection of their data online, one wonders how many have given thought to the data collected by their vehicle. The article also points out scale of the data collected by connected cars and what it could be worth on the market:

According to research firm McKinsey, connected cars create up to 600GB of data per day — the equivalent of more than 100 hours of HD video every 60 minutes — and self-driving cars are expected to generate more than 150 times that amount. The value of this data is expected to reach more than $1.5 trillion by the year 2030, McKinsey says.

Obviously, creators and operators of CAVs are going to want to tap into the market for data. But given the push for privacy legislation I highlighted in my last post, they may soon have to contend with limits on just what they can collect.

~ P.S. I can’t resist adding a brief note on some research from my undergraduate alma mater, the University of Illinois. It seems some researchers there are taking inspiration from the eyes of mantis shrimp to improve the capability of CAV cameras.

 

For many people, syncing their phone to their car is a convenience – allowing them to make hands-free calls or connect to media on their phone through the car’s infotainment system. But doing so can leave a lot of data on the car’s hardware, even after a user believes they have deleted such data. That was the case in a recent ATF investigation into narcotics and firearms trafficking, where federal law enforcement agents were issued a warrant to search a car’s computer for passwords, voice profiles, contacts, call logs, and GPS locations, all of which they believed had been left on the car’s on-board memory. While it’s uncertain just what was recovered, an executed search warrant found by Forbes claims the information extraction was successful.

While this case doesn’t necessarily raise the same issues of government access to data found in the Supreme Court’s recent Carpenter decision, it does illustrate the growing amount of personal data available to outside actors via the computer systems within our vehicles. And while the 4th Amendment can (usually) shield individuals from overreach by government, personal data represents a potential target for malicious actors, as shown by the recent data breach at Facebook which exposed the data of 30 million users. As cars become yet another part of the greater “internet of things,” (IoT) automakers have to confront issues of data protection and privacy. Security researchers have already began to prod vehicle systems for weaknesses – one group was able to breach the computer of a Mazda in 10 seconds.

There has of late been a great deal of talk, and some action, in Washington, Brussels, and Sacramento, towards mandating greater privacy and security standards. Earlier this month, the Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing on Data Privacy in the wake of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, which took effect in May, and California’s Consumer Privacy Act, which was passed in June. Last month, California also passed a bill that sets cybersecurity standards for IoT devices – and there are similar bills that have been introduced in the House and Senate. While it remains to be seen if either of those bills gain traction, it is clear that there is an interest in more significant privacy legislation at the state and federal level, an interest that has to be considered by automakers and other CAV developers as CAVs move closer and closer to wide-scale deployment.

Getting on the Road

Hello! My name is Ian Williams, and I am the Managing Editor of the Journal of Law and Mobility. I wanted to take a moment to introduce myself, and give a brief preview of what to expect from the Journal in the coming weeks and months.

As Managing Editor my job is to keep the trains, err… connected and automated vehicles… running on time. I work with the editorial board to review and edit our articles, and will be a frequent voice on this blog. Starting today I will also be joined on the blog by some brilliant law students who are serving as Research Editors for the Journal.

In the coming months the Journal will begin to publish articles and blog posts on a more frequent basis, with the help of our board and our students. We’ll also be holding events on campus at the University of Michigan, and will host a symposium next year (details to follow). If you’re interested in following our work, subscribe to our mailing list, and take the time to follow us on Twitter, @FuturistLaw.