To consolidate, disseminate, and gather information concerning the 710 expansion into our San Rafael neighborhood and into our surrounding neighborhoods. If you have an item that you would like posted on this blog, please e-mail the item to Peggy Drouet at pdrouet@earthlink.net

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Black Market for Counterfeit Goods Rakes in $500 Billion Yearly

Asked on the No 710 on Avenue 64 Facebook page:

Is it worth spending billions on a tunnel that will damage the health of residents, reduce the quality of life in our communities, and encourage greenhouse gas emissions; FOR THIS?????


(See website for a video)

At a rooftop police parking lot in downtown Los Angeles, a final briefing for a joint task force of the FBI and the LAPD.

When the questions ... and the donuts ... are finished, the agents and officers mount up and fan out. Soon they are racing up the stairs at a nearby building. No, this is not a drug bust. These officers are with the LAPD's Vice Squad searching for something far more profitable than drugs.
Counterfeit goods.

Yves St. Laurent, Gucci, Hermes, Ray Ban ... all of it fake.

Officer Rick Ishitani has been on the counterfeit beat more than a dozen years and does busts 30 to 35 times a year. Counterfeit goods -- from luxury handbags to DVDs -- are a huge problem. Trade groups claim criminals steal copyrighted material worth half a trillion dollars every year. Counterfeit goods account for nearly 10 percent of worldwide trade, an estimated $500 billion annually, according to the World Customs Organization.

While that estimate may be grossly inflated -- like the price of some luxury goods -- the losses to big brand names are big enough to make copyright enforcement a huge priority for the customs service.
The front line in the fight is at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the biggest in the United States. More goods come through these ports than all other major American ports combined, approximately 40 percent of all maritime cargo. That's because this is the first stop for almost everything the U.S. imports from China, Japan and Korea.

ABC News “Nightline’ embedded with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection to see how they lead the effort to police counterfeit goods. With the tsunami of goods coming in every day, it’s a significant challenge to find the contraband, like finding a needle in a haystack.

Before a vessel even sets sail from China, a manifest describing the contents of each container arrives here in Los Angeles. Ken Price, a senior import specialist with the CBP, searches for the needle before the haystack even gets here. After 20 years on the job, he has a good eye for things that are out of the ordinary, just on the paperwork. He and other inspectors look for anything amiss and cross-reference the import manifests against patterns they've seen before.

All of which takes place days -- even weeks -- before the ship even ties off. It has to be that way because there's simply too much to search.

Today, as we board this vessel, the customs officers have a pretty good idea where to look. As immigration clears the captain and crew, the inspectors are already doing a preliminary search. They can take their time. A ship this size will take days to unload.

Among the most urgent priorities are things that might pose a health or a safety threat -- radioactive material, for one.

The scanners indicate the presence of radiation on this truck so it will have to go through secondary inspection. In this case, thankfully, apparently not radiation that poses any threat.

Anything flagged, based on the manifest, goes through the RPM scanner -- short for Radiation Portal Monitor, sort of an X-ray device. But if the container is in any way suspicious – anything odd-shaped, for example -- customs agents open it on the spot.

The goods that are impounded for secondary inspection end up in a warehouse a few blocks away from the port. CBP Supervisor Bryan Nahodil shows “Nightline” a shipment of fake Hermes bags, 16,000 of them.

“When the officers go through our targeting system, what they saw was the importer on record was listed as a home and garden store,” said Nahodil. “But the commodity itself was manifested as handbags, so that didn't add up.”

The bags sure add up, though. If they were real, this shipment would be worth more than $210 million. On the black market, the fakes would fetch just $300,000.

It may all seem like a victimless – and perpetrator-less – crime. But the customs guys take umbrage at that suggestion. Or that, through enforcement efforts like this, the U.S. government is helping to prop up the artificially high price of luxury goods targeted by the knock-off artists. They insist it isn't just the makers of $4,000 bags which are harmed by counterfeit imports. These imports are a criminal’s ATM machine.

“I highly doubt the money that the importer or the manufacturer would gain from importing these handbags is gonna go to pay someone's college fund,” explained Nahodil. “More than likely, it's gonna go to finance some other illicit activity, whether it be terrorism, human trafficking, drugs or some such.”

And it isn't just luxury goods that get knocked off. Jonathan Gelfand is general counsel of Beachbody, LLC, makers of P90X, Insanity and other popular workout videos. For every real set of workout videos, there's a fake that's virtually indistinguishable. The company has several full-time employees whose only job is to search constantly online, looking for deals on Beachbody products that are too good to be true.

“It costs us close to $75 million a year,” said Gelfand. “And that's what we can track.”

That's 10 percent of the company's revenues. Money that doesn't go to new products or employees or to investors.

Back at that LAPD bust, the 24-year-old guy who runs this back-alley counterfeit shop pleads for leniency.

“We won’t ever say it’s a losing battle because every step we make is a gain for us,” said the LAPD's Ishitani.

Even a raid like this one is just a drop in the bucket, he says, and there is an ocean of illegal goods to police.


Metro Freight Series: Global Goods Trade and Metropolitan Economies


By Adie Tomer, Joseph Kane, and Robert Puentes

The Metro Freight research series assesses goods trade at the metropolitan scale. It uses a unique and comprehensive database to capture all the goods moving in and out of U.S. metropolitan areas, both domestically and beyond. The reports in the series will describe which goods move between metropolitan areas, how they move via different modes of transportation, and uncover the specific trading relationships between U.S. metropolitan areas as well as their global counterparts. 

Metro Freight: The Global Goods Trade that Moves Metro Economies (PDF)

This primer establishes the economic rationale for metropolitan goods trade, describing why, how, and what these areas exchange with each other. One of the lessons from the Great Recession is the need to grow and support the tradable sectors, typically manufacturing and high-end services, of our metropolitan economies. But to drive these tradable sectors, metropolitan areas need physical access to markets. Metropolitan freight connectivity enables this access and the ensuing modern global value chains. Without it, trade cannot occur.

Metro-to-Metro: Global and Domestic Goods Trade in Metropolitan America (PDF)

The trading of physical goods is a major component of the U.S. economy. In 2010, the United States moved more than $3 trillion in goods internationally or nearly $8.8 billion, on average, each day. However, an exclusive focus on national trade fails to recognize the extreme regional variety in production, consumption, and goods exchange. This discussion paper marks the first time metropolitan areas can begin to explore their place in domestic and global goods trade networks by tracking which regions generate the most international trade and the level of trade within the much larger domestic marketplace.

Download Individual Metro Profiles (Go to the website to download the metro profiles.)



MIT Study: Vehicle Emissions Cause 58,000 Premature Deaths Yearly in U.S.


By Angie Schmitt, October 22, 2013

Just when you thought it was safe to breathe, a pair of studies underscore the grave threat that air pollution poses to public health.

Air pollution from cars claims more than 58,000 lives in the U.S. every year, according to new research from MIT. 

According to new research from MIT, in 2005 air pollution accounted for a staggering 200,000 premature deaths in the United States, more than 58,000 of which can be attributed to vehicle emissions. Air pollution-related mortality shortened the average victim’s lifespan by 12 years, the study estimates.

The research team used air quality modeling and epidemiological evidence to estimate the mortality effects of six polluting sectors across the United States. Vehicle emissions caused more deaths than any other category of polluter. The next greatest killer was power generation emissions — 54,000 deaths — and industrial emissions — 43,000.

Though city dwellers typically have a smaller emissions footprint per capita, the concentration of people and activities make major East Coast cities the worst for deadly vehicle pollution. In Baltimore, air pollution-related deaths were the highest in the country, at 130 per 100,000 residents. New York and Washington, DC, also have alarmingly high levels of fine particle pollution.

Meanwhile, people who live in heavily industrial areas are vulnerable as well. Donaldsonville, Louisiana, with its nine oil refineries, has the highest rate of mortality related to fine particle pollution in the U.S.

“The results are indicative of the extent to which policy measures could be undertaken in order to mitigate the impact of specific emissions from different sectors,” wrote lead author Fabio Caiazzo and his team, “in particular black carbon emissions from road transportation and sulfur dioxide emissions from power generation.”

As troubling as these findings are, they’re not too far out of line with other research on the topic. In 2010, the EPA estimated that there were 160,000 premature deaths due to fine particle pollution alone. An additional 4,300 deaths were attributed to ozone pollution.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization recently added air pollution to its list of carcinogens. The WHO’s determination comes from experts at its International Agency for Research on Cancer, who, after reviewing thousands of studies, concluded air pollution could be linked to both lung and bladder cancer [PDF].

“The air most people breathe has become polluted with a complicated mixture of cancer-causing substances,” Kurt Straif of the IARC told the Associated Press. He added that the WHO now considers air pollution “the most important environmental carcinogen,” ahead of second-hand smoke.

CALL TO ACTION: Oct. 24 Metro Board Meeting

From Sylvia Plummer, October 22, 2013

Hello All,
As you know from yesterday's email message, the Metro Board is scheduled to address a motion submitted on behalf of 5 members of the Board that would reinstate the SR 710 project to the list of Measure R projects for accelerated funding.  The project was excluded from that list by the Board in June when a motion to remove it from consideration for accelerated funding was made by Ara Najarian and passed by the Board.  Some on the Board now want to put it back in the accelerated category. 

For all of the reasons listed in yesterday's email message -- and more-- we do not want to see that happen.  We need people to attend the Metro Board meeting this Thursday at 9:30 a.m at One Gateway Plaza (building adjacent to Union Station).
If you can attend, please be prepared to speak for one minute, telling the Board why they should not adopt this motion.  It is so important for us to have maximum representation at this meeting.  You must fill out a speaker card when you arrive at the Board Chambers, and the item number is 71.  Although the motion is positioned near the end of the agenda, that does not preclude the possibility that it might be moved up the agenda.  However, it could be a long wait.  So, you might want to bring a book, paper or something else to do while you wait. 
For those of you who had emails to several of the Board members bounced back as undeliverable.  We apologize.  We do try to update our bank of email addresses periodically, but sometimes we find out that those we have are outdated and no longer valid.  If you sent your message to the Board Secretary, it will be distributed to each Board member.  In the meantime, we will research the bad email addresses and update our records.
Hope to see you there!

We must improve ports, waterways and water infrastructure


By Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) and Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), October 21, 2013

The global marketplace is becoming increasingly competitive, making it more difficult for the United States to stay on top. According to the World Economic Forum, in just a few years, we have fallen from having the most competitive economy in the world to having the fifth.

America must protect any economic advantages it has. During the last 150 years, transformative infrastructure accomplishments, such as the Transcontinental Railroad, the Panama Canal and the Interstate Highway System, have given us a tremendous economic edge. 
But these advantages are slipping away. It has become more challenging to care for and modernize our infrastructure, while other countries are improving their transportation systems and closing the gap.
 For example, our cost-effective inland waterways system makes it cheaper to get soybeans from U.S. farmers in Iowa to China, compared to the costs for our Brazilian competitors. However, the aging locks and dams on our rivers are becoming less reliable and driving up domestic transportation costs, while Brazil’s port improvements and development of a comparable waterways system will drive down its costs.
If we don’t properly care for our own infrastructure, the continued deterioration of this vital asset will have repercussions throughout our economy, and we will have no one but ourselves to blame for furthering our own competitive decline.

In the past, Congress approved legislation every 2 years to provide direction to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for maintaining our waterborne transportation infrastructure. However, Congress has not passed such a bill since 2007 or acted to reform the slow, costly, duplicative process that allows the Corps to study projects for 15 years or more with no cost limit.

This week, the House will consider legislation we introduced to address these problems, strengthen our infrastructure, keep America competitive and promote economic growth. The bipartisan Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) provides overdue reforms of the Corps process, is fiscally responsible, contains no earmarks and maintains Congress’s constitutional authority to provide strong oversight and ensure the efficient flow of commerce.

Our fiscally responsible WRRDA eliminates $12 billion in previously authorized but inactive projects, reducing the significant project backlog and fully offsetting new water infrastructure projects.Additional reforms bring greater accountability and transparency to how projects are selected and reviewed. State, local or nonfederal parties will now identify potential infrastructure needs. The Corps will review proposals and submit those eligible for authorization to Congress in an annual public report.

Under a newly consolidated and streamlined process, almost all Corps studies will now have deadlines of no more than three years and will be limited to $3 million. If the Corps Chief of Engineers recommends construction, the proposal will be sent to Congress for consideration.
This new transparent process eliminates earmarking and increases accountability for Congress to exercise its constitutional responsibilities. Only proposals that are fully vetted, reviewed, made public and submitted to Congress by the Corps can receive congressional authorization.

Further common-sense reforms reduce bureaucratic hurdles and provide flexibility for nonfederal parties, including the private sector, to finance authorized projects. For example, the Port of Miami is prepared to move forward with a much-needed infrastructure improvement, without federal funding, but is unable to do so simply because of statutory roadblocks. Our bill fixes this problem and ensures it won’t happen again.

As anyone in business or on a budget knows, time is money. By accelerating the process for studying and developing infrastructure improvements, instituting deadlines and cost controls and providing the necessary flexibility for projects to proceed when the federal government is in the way, the WRRDA saves us both.

Most importantly, this legislation reinvigorates one of our nation’s greatest transportation assets, and allows America’s farmers, manufacturers and businesses to compete on a global scale.

Notice of Arroyo and San Rafael Construction

Puerto Rican ‘Bomba’ music and dance at Union Station on Friday, Oct 25


By Heidi Zeller, October 22, 2013


Metro Presents next offering: Puerto Rican Bomba music and dance by Atabey at historic Union Station this Friday, October 25. The group will appear in the South Patio and their performance will coincide with the Friday afternoon rush hour.

Thousands of miles away from Puerto Rico, Atabey has been maintaining and promoting Bomba dancing, drumming and singing in Los Angeles since 2008. Atabey is one of the many names used by the indigenous people of Puerto Rico, the Tainos, for the deity of fertility and renewal.
Bomba music is a tradition that was developed in Puerto Rico by Africans who worked on sugar cane plantations. “Bomba is freedom and structure, community and ancestry, sensuality and modesty, ego and humility, tradition and innovation,” says band director Hector Rivera. “Hundreds of years later, Bomba is still alive and thriving all the way in Los Angeles, California!”

Atabey Friday, October 25, 2013 Two 45-minute sets beginning at 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. Union Station South Patio

The performance is a continuance Metro Presents, Metro’s newly launched program of arts and cultural programs at Union Station. All events are free and open to the public. For more information on upcoming Metro Presents events, check Union Station’s events page.
Union Station is accessible via Metro Rail, Metro Bus and several municipal bus lines. Use the Trip Planner at metro.net for routes and connections. Car and bicycle parking are also available on site.

Forum on Global Warming

Credit Rating Firm Catalogs Toll Road Woes

Throughout the world, toll road projects go bankrupt or face increasing risks according to Fitch Ratings.


October 9, 2013

Fitch Ratings, sees trouble ahead for toll road projects and public private partnerships in general. In a report issued Monday, the credit rating agency outlined the failures of tolling and related projects in the United States and around the world, though the agency remains optimistic on the viability of this road funding mechanism.

"While one can view public private partnerships as a glass half full or as a glass half empty, it is Fitch's view that the former is the better perspective," the analysts explained. "Public private partnerships can provide public value, but need to be carefully crafted to address all stakeholder concerns. When public private partnerships are viewed to have failed, the issue is often inappropriate transaction design and application."

Governments can take blame for bad design in the deals where private companies take control and generate too much profit from a concession. The private entities take the blame when bankruptcy, cost overruns and debt default are the result. For a project to work, both sides need to look out for one another, the analysts argued. Fitch listed a number of failed projects around the world that suffered from overleveraged assets.

"In the US, these include the San Joaquin Hills toll road, SouthBay Expressway, Southern Connector, Santa Rosa Bay Bridge, Dulles Greenway, Indiana toll road and Pocahontas Parkway," the report explained. "In Europe, they include the Madrid Radiales in Spain and toll projects in Portugal. The Tequila Crisis in the mid-1990s caused numerous projects to default on their debt in Mexico. In Australia, the Cross City and Lane Cove tunnel projects were also exposed to this risk."

Fitch claims to have updated its rating criteria with appropriate risk factors after learning from tolling mistakes. The report cited the Chicago Skyway as a deal like the Indiana Toll Road with a risky debt structure built upon accreting swaps that are used to lower early debt service payments. Canada's 407 ETR was faulted for giving the tolling company an unlimited right to raise tolls for 99 years. In Virginia, the Elizabeth River Crossings project is under legal challenge. France, Spain and Portugal report similar difficulties. Massively overstated traffic and revenue forecasts have plagued Colorado's Northwest Parkway, the State Highway 130 toll road in Texas and England's M1 Toll Road.

"Although there have been many issues with public private partnerships, this is not necessarily an indictment on public private partnerships," the report argued.

California to Pilot Electronic License Plates

Senate Bill 806 was recently signed by Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown, enabling the DMV to experiment with electronic license plates.


By Jessica Renee Napier, October 9, 2013

Senate Bill 806 was signed by California Gov. Jerry Brown last week, authorizing the state DMV to establish an electronic license plate pilot program.

Although the law does not include the requirement of an electronic solution, previous versions of the bill include language about partnering with the private sector on electronic alternatives for payment and processing programs regarding vehicle registration and titling. The pilot needs to be established by Jan. 1, 2017.

The California DMV headquarters.
According to background information provided by the Senate floor bill analysis, the alternatives would lower the cost of DMV vehicle registration services, particularly DMV processing and mailing expenditures. Each year, there are more than 10 million renewals. With this pilot project, the DMV can test a digital electronic plate, allowing the agency to electronically issue updated stickers and registration cards.

“The DMV may choose to work with a product that already exists on the market,” said Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, the bill’s author. “The technologies used will be based on the DMV request for proposal process. This process will allow the DMV to seek out any and all products in the marketplace that may generate efficiencies within the vehicle registration process.”

It will cost less than $50,000 for the DMV to administer the pilot program and complete the evaluation report, according to the Assembly Appropriations Committee. The pilot program is limited to no more than .5 percent of registered vehicles for the purpose of road testing and evaluation, and restricted to vehicle owners who have voluntarily chosen to participate.

Smart Plate Inc., has a patent on digital electronic license plates and has offered to make its product available to the DMV. The technology consists generally of a computer screen that takes on the appearance of a standard California license plate.

The device will be limited to data necessary to display evidence of registration compliance. However, it is within technological capability to post other text, such as Amber Alerts or “stolen” if the vehicle has been illegally taken from its owner.

The DMV will be responsible for sharing the results of the pilot program with the California Legislature no later than July 1, 2018. The report will include information about whether the devices evaluated in the pilot program have the ability to transmit and retain information relating to the movement, location or use of a vehicle. If a product contains that feature, the report shall also note if the technology includes any security features to protect against unauthorized access to that information.

Hueso added that SB 806 contains parameters to ensure personal information is protected and outlines the following provisions:
  • specifies that the pilot is voluntary;
  • prohibits DMV from receiving or retaining GPS data; and
  • the DMV must report to the Legislature on all tested products and their features, specifically those that include the ability for GPS tracking.
The report must also contain DMV recommendations for how any personal information will be managed and maintained.

Lee Tien, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a public interest civil liberties agency that works on free speech, privacy and intellectual property issues, said his organization and others like it are concerned about the potential for the technology to be interfered with by a third party.  He added that it wouldn’t be surprising if hackers signed up for the pilot to see what they could do to their own license plates.

“California sometimes prides itself as being a leader on technology and privacy,” Tien said. “But to do that, the state has to pay attention to technology procurement from a privacy and security perspective in a systematic way, and not just react to headlines or privacy advocates. Schools, cities, police, transit — everyone is being sold all sorts of shiny new devices. Let's make sure that at least all of the government purchases of or requirements for new technologies are done with privacy and security in mind from the beginning.”

Seattle Mayoral Candidates: Who Pays if Tunnel Goes Over Budget?


By Paula Wissel, October 9, 2013

What if Seattle gets stuck with cost overruns on the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project?
That question sparked a lively exchange on KING-TV between the two candidates for mayor of Seattle during their first televised debate.

During the hour long debate sponsored by KING-TV, KIRO-FM and The Seattle Times, Mayor Mike McGinn and Sen. Ed Murray traded jabs on everything from leadership style to police reform.
But their discussion of the tunnel project raised one of the most interesting questions.

Will we have to pay more in taxes if Bertha runs into additional delays? Bertha, of course, is the machine digging the massive tunnel that will replace the viaduct.

The discussion began when Murray charged, as he did throughout the debate, that McGinn has been a divisive leader. Case in point, he said, was McGinn’s assertion during the last election that he supported a tunnel replacement for the viaduct, then opposed it once he got into office.

McGinn replied that he wasn’t opposed to the viaduct, just to the city being saddled with any cost overruns. Now that the project is underway and there have been slow downs with Bertha, McGinn says it remains a valid concern.

“I raised an important question, a question that remains unanswered as to who will pay cost overruns and Senator Murray’s position is that it’s all right for everyone to be angry at me for asking a question like that. Let’s say there was a 10 percent cost overrun on that. That’s $200 million. That’s a lot of money in our city budget to come up with,” McGinn said.
And, McGinn reminded the audience, Murray voted for the
transportation bill in the Legislature that included the requirement that Seattle pay the cost overruns. Murray said although he didn’t like the provision at the time, he thought it important to vote for the overall transportation package.

“There are no perfect bills,” he said.

Murray was then asked what he would do if he became mayor and there were cost overruns.

“I believe I have the relationship with Olympia, as mayor, to go down there and remind Olympia this is a state highway and they have a responsibility. The taxpayers of Seattle should not pay for it and I would not support a tax in Seattle to pay for it,” Murray said, to which McGinn quipped, “I’d like Senator Murray to stay in Olympia and use his influence to make that happen.”

South Pasadena to Honor Sen. Carol Liu Today

South Pasadena will recognize the Oct. 1 passage of SB 416, authored by Liu and designed to sell 587 properties Caltrans owns along the 710 gap.


By Ajay Singh, October 22, 2013

Sen. Carol Liu (D-La Cañada Flintridge).

Sen. Carol Liu (D-La Cañada Flintridge).

The City of South Pasadena is scheduled hold a news conference Tuesday, Oct. 22, to recognize the successful passage of Senate Bill 416 authored by Sen. Carol Liu (D-La Cañada Flintridge) and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown Oct. 1, expediting the sale of 587 properties that the California Department of Transportation owns along the “710 gap” in South Pasadena, Pasadena and Los Angeles, where transportation officials are studying a 4.5-mile tunnel between the 710 and 210 freeways.

“The bill requires Caltrans to sell the properties, which have been under their control for more than 50 years and ensures that the surface freeway route is off the table,” a communiqué from the City of South Pasadena said Monday, referring to the fact that the new law precludes the surface freeway route as an option in state environmental documents about the 710 project.

“We have long recognized just how important these homes are to our local communities,” the city’s communiqué quoted Liu as saying. “It is now time to move these properties out of state ownership and place them back in the private market and into the hands of citizens.”

Representatives from the City of Los Angeles and Pasadena will join South Pasadena in thanking Liu for her efforts, the communiqué said.

Assemblymember Chris Holden (D-Pasadena), who co-authored SB 416, is scheduled to be present at the news conference, according to his media representative Wendy Gordon.

“This bill is very important to the citizens of South Pasadena,” Mayor Richard Schneider said in a statement included in the city’s communiqué, which follows a letter of gratitude that South Pasadena sent to Liu earlier this month. “It returns the properties back to private/home ownership and takes Caltrans out of the ‘landlord’ business.”

The news conference, which is open to the public, will be held at 3 p.m. at 1110 Glendon Way, in one of the residential properties Caltrans owns and will now be selling off. For inquiries, call the city manager’s office at (626) 403-7210.

The Ethics of Autonomous Cars

Sometimes good judgment can compel us to act illegally. Should a self-driving vehicle get to make that same decision? 


By Patrick Lin, October 8, 2013


 A self-driving car roams the streets of Las Vegas.

If a small tree branch pokes out onto a highway and there’s no incoming traffic, we’d simply drift a little into the opposite lane and drive around it. But an automated car might come to a full stop, as it dutifully observes traffic laws that prohibit crossing a double-yellow line. This unexpected move would avoid bumping the object in front, but then cause a crash with the human drivers behind it.
Should we trust robotic cars to share our road, just because they are programmed to obey the law and avoid crashes? 

Our laws are ill-equipped to deal with the rise of these vehicles (sometimes called “automated”, “self-driving”, “driverless”, and “robot” cars—I will use these interchangeably). For example, is it enough for a robot car to pass a human driving test? In licensing automated cars as street-legal, some commentators believe that it’d be unfair to hold manufacturers to a higher standard than humans, that is, to make an automated car undergo a much more rigorous test than a new teenage driver. 

But there are important differences between humans and machines that could warrant a stricter test. For one thing, we’re reasonably confident that human drivers can exercise judgment in a wide range of dynamic situations that don’t appear in a standard 40-minute driving test; we presume they can act ethically and wisely. Autonomous cars are new technologies and won’t have that track record for quite some time.

Moreover, as we all know, ethics and law often diverge, and good judgment could compel us to act illegally. For example, sometimes drivers might legitimately want to, say, go faster than the speed limit in an emergency. Should robot cars never break the law in autonomous mode? If robot cars faithfully follow laws and regulations, then they might refuse to drive in auto-mode if a tire is under-inflated or a headlight is broken, even in the daytime when it’s not needed.

For the time being, the legal and regulatory framework for these vehicles is slight. As Stanford law fellow Bryant Walker Smith has argued, automated cars are probably legal in the United States, but only because of a legal principle that “everything is permitted unless prohibited.” That’s to say, an act is allowed unless it’s explicitly banned, because we presume that individuals should have as much liberty as possible. Since, until recently, there were no laws concerning automated cars, it was probably not illegal for companies like Google to test their self-driving cars on public highways.

To illustrate this point by example, Smith turns to another vehicle: a time machine. “Imagine that someone invents a time machine," he writes. "Does she break the law by using that machine to travel to the past?” Given the legal principle nullum crimen sine lege, or “no crime without law,” she doesn’t directly break the law by the act of time-traveling itself, since no law today governs time-travel.

This is where ethics come in. When laws cannot guide us, we need to return to our moral compass or first principles in thinking about autonomous cars. Does ethics yield the same answer as law? That’s not so clear. If time-traveling alters history in such a way that causes some people to be harmed or never have been born, then ethics might find the act problematic.

This illustrates the potential break between ethics and lawIdeally, ethics, law, and policy would line up, but often they don’t in the real world. (Jaywalking and speeding are illegal, for examples, but they don’t seem to be always unethical, e.g., during a time when there’s no traffic or in case of an emergency. A policy, then, to always ticket or arrest jaywalkers and speeders would be legal but perhaps too harsh.) 

But, because the legal framework for autonomous vehicles does not yet exist, we have the opportunity to build one that is informed by ethics. This will be the challenge in creating laws and policies that govern automated cars: We need to ensure they make moral sense. Programming a robot car to slavishly follow the law, for instance, might be foolish and dangerous. Better to proactively consider ethics now than defensively react after a public backlash in national news.

The Trolley Problem

Philosophers have been thinking about ethics for thousands of years, and we can apply that experience to robot cars. One classical dilemma, proposed by philosophers Philippa Foot and Judith Jarvis Thomson, is called the Trolley Problem: Imagine a runaway trolley (train) is about to run over and kill five people standing on the tracks. Watching the scene from the outside, you stand next to a switch that can shunt the train to a sidetrack, on which only one person stands. Should you throw the switch, killing the one person on the sidetrack (who otherwise would live if you did nothing), in order to save five others in harm’s way?

A simple analysis would look only at the numbers: Of course it’s better that five persons should live than only one person, everything else being equal. But a more thoughtful response would consider other factors too, including whether there’s a moral distinction between killing and letting die: It seems worse to do something that causes someone to die (the one person on the sidetrack) than to allow someone to die (the five persons on the main track) as a result of events you did not initiate or had no responsibility for.

To hammer home the point that numbers alone don’t tell the whole story, consider a common variation of the problem: Imagine that you’re again watching a runaway train about to run over five people. But you could push or drop a very large gentleman onto the tracks, whose body would derail the train in the ensuing collision, thus saving the five people farther down the track. Would you still kill one person to save five?

If your conscience starts to bother you here, it may be that you recognize a moral distinction between intending someone’s death and merely foreseeing it. In the first scenario, you don’t intend for the lone person on the sidetrack to die; in fact, you hope that he escapes in time. But in the second scenario, you do intend for the large gentleman to die; you need him to be struck by the train in order for your plan to work. And intending death seems worse than just foreseeing it.

This dilemma isn’t just a theoretical problem. Driverless trains today operate in many cities worldwide, including London, Paris, Tokyo, San Francisco, Chicago, New York City, and dozens more. As situational awareness improves with more advanced sensors, networking, and other technologies, a robot train might someday need to make such a decision.

Autonomous cars may face similar no-win scenarios too, and we would hope their operating programs would choose the lesser evil. But it would be an unreasonable act of faith to think that programming issues will sort themselves out without a deliberate discussion about ethics, such as which choices are better or worse than others. Is it better to save an adult or child? What about saving two (or three or ten) adults versus one child? We don’t like thinking about these uncomfortable and difficult choices, but programmers may have to do exactly that. Again, ethics by numbers alone seems naïve and incomplete; rights, duties, conflicting values, and other factors often come into play.

If you complain here that robot cars would probably never be in the Trolley scenario—that the odds of having to make such a decision are minuscule and not worth discussing—then you’re missing the point. Programmers still will need to instruct an automated car on how to act for the entire range of foreseeable scenarios, as well as lay down guiding principles for unforeseen scenarios. So programmers will need to confront this decision, even if we human drivers never have to in the real world. And it matters to the issue of responsibility and ethics whether an act was premeditated (as in the case of programming a robot car) or reflexively without any deliberation (as may be the case with human drivers in sudden crashes).

Anyway, there are many examples of car accidents every day that involve difficult choices, and robot cars will encounter at least those. For instance, if an animal darts in front of our moving car, we need to decide: whether it would be prudent to brake; if so, how hard to brake; whether to continue straight or swerve to the left of right; and so on. These decisions are influenced by environmental conditions (e.g., slippery road), obstacles on and off the road (e.g., other cars to the left and trees to the right), size of an obstacle (e.g., hitting a cow diminishes your survivability, compared to hitting a raccoon), second-order effects (e.g., crash with the car behind us, if we brake too hard), lives at risk in and outside the car (e.g., a baby passenger might mean the robot car should give greater weight to protecting its occupants), and so on.

Human drivers may be forgiven for making an instinctive but nonetheless bad split-second decision, such as swerving into incoming traffic rather than the other way into a field. But programmers and designers of automated cars don’t have that luxury, since they do have the time to get it right and therefore bear more responsibility for bad outcomes.

The road ahead

Programming is only one of many areas to reflect upon as society begins to widely adopt autonomous driving technology. Here are a few others—and surely there are many, many more:

1. The car itself

Does it matter to ethics if a car is publicly owned, for instance, a city bus or fire truck? The owner of a robot car may reasonably expect that its property “owes allegiance” to the owner and should value his or her life more than unknown pedestrians and drivers. But a publicly owned automated vehicle might not have that obligation, and this can change moral calculations.

Just as the virtues and duties of a police officer are different from those of a professor or secretary, the duties of automated cars may also vary. Even among public vehicles, the assigned roles and responsibilities are different between, say, a police car and a shuttle bus. Some robo-cars may be obligated to sacrifice themselves and their occupants in certain conditions, while others are not.

2. Insurance

How should we think about risks arising from robot cars? The insurance industry is the last line of defense for common sense about risk. It’s where you put your money where your mouth is. And as school districts that want to arm their employees have discovered, just because something is legal doesn’t mean you can do it, if insurance companies aren’t comfortable with the risk. This is to say that, even if we can sort out law and ethics with automated cars, insurers still need to make confident judgments about risk, and this will be very difficult.

Do robot cars present an existential threat to the insurance industry? Some believe that ultra-safe cars that can avoid most or all accidents will mean that many insurance companies will go belly-up, since there would be no or very little risk to insure against. But things could go the other way too: We could see mega-accidents as cars are networked together and vulnerable to wireless hacking—something like the stock market’s “flash crash” in 2010. What can the insurance industry do to protect itself while not getting in the way of the technology, which holds immense benefits?

3. Abuse and misuse

How susceptible would robot cars be to hacking? So far, just about every computing device we’ve created has been hacked. If authorities and owners (e.g., rental car company) are able to remotely take control of a car, this offers an easy path for cyber-carjackers. If under attack, whether a hijacking or ordinary break-in, what should the car do: Speed away, alert the police, remain at the crime scene to preserve evidence…or maybe defend itself? For a future suite of in-car apps, as well as sensors and persistent GPS/tracking, can we safeguard personal information, or do we resign ourselves to a world with disappearing privacy rights?

What kinds of abuse might we see with autonomous cars? If the cars drive too conservatively, they may become a road hazard or trigger road-rage in human drivers with less patience. If the crash-avoidance system of a robot car is generally known, then other drivers may be tempted to “game” it, e.g., by cutting in front of it, knowing that the automated car will slow down or swerve to avoid an accident. If those cars can safely drive us home in a fully-auto mode, that may encourage a culture of more alcohol consumption, since we won’t need to worry so much about drunk-driving.

Predicting the future

We don’t really know what our robot-car future will look like, but we can already see that much work needs to be done. Part of the problem is our lack of imagination. Brookings Institution director Peter W. Singer said, “We are still at the ‘horseless carriage’ stage of this technology, describing these technologies as what they are not, rather than wrestling with what they truly are.” As it applies here, robots aren’t merely replacing human drivers, just as human drivers in the first automobiles weren’t simply replacing horses: The impact of automating transportation will change society in radical ways, and ethics can help guide it.

In “robot ethics,” most of the attention so far has been focused on military drones. But cars are maybe the most iconic technology in America—forever changing cultural, economic, and political landscapes. They’ve made new forms of work possible and accelerated the pace of business, but they also waste our time in traffic. They rush countless patients to hospitals and deliver basic supplies to rural areas, but also continue to kill more than 30,000 people a year in the U.S. alone. They bring families closer together, but also farther away at the same time. They’re the reason we have suburbs, shopping malls, and fast-food restaurants, but also new environmental and social problems.

Automated cars, likewise, promise great benefits and unintended effects that are difficult to predict, and the technology is coming either way. Change is inescapable and not necessarily a bad thing in itself. But major disruptions and new harms should be anticipated and avoided where possible. That is the role of ethics in public policy: it can pave the way for a better future, or it could become a wreck if we don’t keep looking ahead.