Monday, March 26, 2018

Self-Driving Car Kills Pedestrian


Mill Avenue near Curry Road in Tempe, Arizona is a wide four-lane surface road with few streetlights. Around 10:30 PM on the night of Sunday, March 18, it was quite dark where Elaine Hertzberg, 49, chose to walk her bicycle across the road in the middle of a block, instead of crossing at a designated crosswalk.  From a dashcam video of the accident that happened a few seconds later, it does not appear that her bicycle had any lights or reflectors on it, and she wasn't looking in the direction of oncoming traffic as she slowly rolled her bike across.

Meanwhile, in a self-driving car operated by the ride service Uber, Rafael (or Rafaela—sources differ) Vasquez, 44, was behind the wheel.  But as well-functioning self-driving vehicles tend to do, the car had driven itself so well without difficulties in the past that Vasquez had gotten used to doing things other than keeping her eyes on the road all the time.  A video of the car interior taken simultaneously with the dashcam video shows Vasquez glancing up occasionally, but most of the time she has her eyes on something in her lap—possibly a cellphone. 

Hertzberg and her bicycle were well into the car's lane before they showed up in the headlights.  But the bicyclist was moving too slowly—or the car was going too fast—for her to get out of the way before it hit her.  She died at a local hospital a short time later, becoming the first pedestrian to die in an accident involving an autonomous vehicle.

In the week just ended, several experts have criticized Uber for fielding a self-driving system that could have failed so easily.  Uber's autonomous vehicles are equipped with radars and lidars (essentially, radars using light), and should have detected Hertzberg or her bicycle before she came into view in the car's headlights.  But the video reveals no sign such as swerving or braking that the system had any sign that she was there.  And Vasquez happened to glance up only a second or two before the collision, so she was unable to do anything until it was too late.

This death both draws attention to possible defects in Uber's self-driving cars, and also calls into question the usefulness of backup drivers in such vehicles.

Most self-driving cars today are in a kind of gray area, neither completely independent of human assistance but not needing it most of the time.  In the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's five-level classification of self-driving cars, the highest level out there according to one expert is Level 3, which says that the automated driving system (ADS) performs all driving tasks under "some circumstances," but the human driver must be prepared to take over at the request of the ADS.  I don't know about you, but I would have a lot of trouble sitting in the driver's seat and waiting for a call that might not come for hours or days.  Boredom sets in, and it's no wonder Vasquez was looking at her cellphone when she should have been watching the road.  So as long as humans are designed to be in the loop of controlling the car, the humans will have an opportunity to drop the ball, and last Sunday, that's what happened.

On the other hand, it would be hard for designers to make the leap straight from Level 0 (totally human-driven cars) to Level 5 (humans are passengers only, and the car does all the driving all the time) without months and years of real-life testing, as well as computer simulations.  And so you get into a chicken-and-egg situation:  how do you design a Level-5-competence car without testing it in real traffic, but if it's not Level 5 yet, how do you test it without a human driver to help out?  The answer is, you don't, so we have Level 2 and Level 3 cars out there with people behind the wheel, but inevitably, some of the drivers start treating the car like it was a Level 5, and you get accidents. 

This mishap will be thoroughly investigated, so it is too soon to draw any definite conclusions about the cause.  It may turn out that some of the vital systems in the Uber car were temporarily out of commission, or that the pedestrian's bicycle confused the sensors somehow, or that some other explanation is the case that we can't even imagine now.  Uber has commendably suspended all operations of their self-driving cars.  But once the cause or causes are found, the state of self-driving-car engineering can move forward with added understanding, which is how engineering usually works—learning from failures sometimes more than from successes.

It's usually dangerous to commit a known wrong in the present on the chance that it will lead to something better that might result from it in the future.  That's how we got Communism's mass slaughters in the name of the glorious egalitarian future that never came.  But there is no indication that Uber has been so negligent as to allow this accident to happen on purpose.  The first fatality involving steam locomotives didn't stop the progress of railroads, and this first fatality involving a pedestrian and a self-driving car will not stop the development of Level 5 cars, which promise eventually to reduce the already declining number of automotive deaths in both the U. S. and abroad.   It's likely that if we could give every person convicted of DWI a self-driving car right now, the net auto fatality rate might plunge significantly.  I'm not recommending that, but if we don't have the gumption to stop drunks from driving, we should take the keys out of their hands and give them to robots as soon as the market and the technology are ready. 

I'm sure that Elaine Hertzberg had no desire to become posthumously famous by being the first pedestrian to die from being hit by a self-driving car.  But now that it's happened, it's the job of engineers to make sure that more lives are saved than lost by the advancement of self-driving car technology.

Sources:  A story on this accident by Associated Press writers Tom Krisher and Jacques Billeaud was picked up by numerous outlets such as the Phoenix ABC-TV station at https://www.abc15.com/news/region-southeast-valley/tempe/experts-uber-suvs-autonomous-system-should-have-seen-woman-in-tempe.  I also referred to articles in the Washington Post at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/dr-gridlock/wp/2018/03/24/waymo-ceo-on-fatal-autonomous-uber-crash-our-car-would-have-been-able-to-handle-it/?utm_term=.a25e8b99ab08 and Forbes at https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaeltaylor/2018/03/22/fatal-uber-crash-inevitable-says-bmws-top-engineer/#7f99b0f45568.  The dashcam and interior camera videos leading up to the moment before the crash can be viewed at https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2018/03/video-uber-driver-looks-down-for-seconds-before-fatal-crash/.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The FIU Bridge Collapse: More Questions Than Answers


On Thursday, March 16, workers on a newly installed span of a pedestrian bridge across the busy seven-lane Southwest Eighth Street that divides Florida International University (FIU) from the adjacent town of Sweetwater were adjusting some tensioning cables in the span.  The Saturday before, Barnhart Crane Rigging Company had lifted the span from the side of the road where it had been built over the preceding months, carried it a short distance along the closed street, and lowered it into place successfully.  FIU officials were proud that a novel technique called accelerated bridge construction (ABC) was being used for the bridge, because the school itself has a center that promotes and studies that technique.  Instead of blocking traffic for weeks or months while hazardous lifting operations put a bridge into place piece by piece, workers using accelerated bridge construction build the bridge offline, so to speak, and then shut down traffic only briefly as entire spans are lifted into place. 

The technique has been used frequently in the last few years with no major problems, so no one expected any issues this time.  As it turns out, though, those expectations were disappointed.

At 1:47 PM Thursday, without apparent warning the entire bridge collapsed onto the busy highway, crushing cars and killing at least one construction worker who was on the bridge at the time.  Six people died in the accident. 

Some of the questions raised by this tragedy can't be answered yet.  For example:

Why wasn't the road closed during an operation such as cable tensioning that might have endangered the stability of the bridge?

The whole idea of ABC is to keep transportation going as much as possible.  Evidently the engineering firm which designed the bridge, FIGG Construction of Tallahassee, had reason to believe that the span was going to support itself safely during tensioning operations, so no one issued orders to close the road. 

What is the significance of some cracks that one engineer reported seeing on Tuesday, two days before the collapse?

Right now, we don't know.  Cracks in concrete mean that wherever the crack shows up, tensile (stretching) forces locally exceeded compressive (squeezing) forces.  Concrete is a material that can withstand a lot of compression, but hardly any tension on its own.  That's why large concrete structures contain carefully designed and placed steel reinforcement such as "rebar" and sometimes cables, which were evidently used in the ill-fated structure as well.  Some cracks are only skin-deep, so to speak, and do not indicate a structural problem, just a cosmetic one.  Others may go all the way through a structure and are signs of a major problem.  Until forensic experts piece together the remains of the 174-foot span and figure out where the trouble started, we won't know whether the cracks were superficial or significant.  At a meeting of construction personnel Thursday a couple of hours before the collapse, the cracks were discussed and the consensus was that they were not a safety issue.

If the final design of the bridge included a tower and suspension-bridge-like pipes connecting it to the span that collapsed, why weren't those parts of the structure in place before the road under the span was opened to traffic?

I am not a mechanical or civil engineer, and so I'm strictly an amateur compared to someone with professional training in those fields.  Reportedly, the university website about the bridge stated that the tower and suspension pipes were not needed for static support, and were there simply to cut down vibrations and add esthetics.  Allow this amateur to beg to differ. 

A sketch of the intended completed bridge can be viewed here, and shows that several concrete struts or trusses that connect the concrete roof of the bridge to the lower walkway part are straight in line with the planned suspension pipes.  It certainly looks like the trusses were intended to carry the weight of the walkway through tension (probably by inner tension cables) up through the roof to the suspension pipes.

It's possible (more than possible, if the FIGG engineers knew what they were doing) that even without the tower suspension structure, maintaining proper tension on cables inside the trusses would keep the whole concrete structure in compression sufficiently to counteract the tension that the walkway part would experience once it was put in place over the roadway.  What may have happened (and this is purely my speculation) is that when a construction worker began to adjust one of the tension cables, he might have done something as simple as turning a nut the wrong way.  Such an action might have sent an already marginally stable structure over the edge of failure, and once such a delicately balanced system has one part fail, the rest of it goes too.

I do not envy the work of forensic engineers who now have to transport the messy wreckage somewhere so they can pore over every identifiable piece, figuring out what was where and what the exact positions of tensioning adjustments were.  From such small details a picture should emerge that will let us figure out what went wrong last Thursday that led to such a dismal outcome of something that was supposed to be a point of pride.

In the meantime, this disaster should serve as a warning for every construction firm doing accelerated bridge construction.  Maybe we should ease off on the accelerator a little, at least until we find out what happened at FIU last week.

*NOTE added after posting:  A comment posted by the Happy Pontist, a professional bridge designer, contradicts my admittedly amateur opinion that the tower and suspension pipes might carry a load.  He confirms what the university website claims, which is that they were for vibration damping, and their alignment with the truss members was for esthetic reasons only.  Thanks to the Happy Pontist for this correction. 

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Monday, March 12, 2018

Offshore Oil Regulation: Attitudes and Platitudes


The words "Be my guest," can mean different things, depending on the attitude and demeanor of the speaker.  If a host at a party says those words sincerely to invite an honored guest to open the first bottle of wine, they mean something encouraging and affirming.  But if two co-workers are discussing which one of them should go in and deliver bad news to a cranky boss, and one of them says to the other, "Be my guest" as a way of copping out, the words are meant ironically, to say the least.  So the meaning of a platitude or cliché like "Be my guest," can depend on a person's intent, and can't be discerned simply by a written record of the words spoken.  The same thing can be true of laws and regulations.

Offshore oil drilling and production can be dangerous and even deadly, as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon accident and subsequent months-long oil spill proved.  Leases of permits to drill by the U. S. federal government are made with the understanding that companies drilling and producing oil offshore (primarily in the Gulf of Mexico these days) will follow government regulations about safety and environmental protection.  Following the Deepwater Horizon spill, the Obama administration temporarily froze all drilling activities and then tightened regulations on the industry.  Work continued under those conditions, but the knowledge that the folks in charge in Washington were basically opposed to the oil and gas businesses was discouraging to those involved in them, to say the least.

A number of things have changed since 2010.  New drilling methods have forced energy prices down to about half of their former level, leading to a big decline in the drilling of new wells.  But those same new methods of enhanced extraction can be applied to existing offshore rigs, though with added difficulty, and so much of the oil and gas action in the Gulf now pertains to the aging inventory of existing rigs, some of which have stood in the water for decades. 

New York Times reporter Eric Lipton recently wrote a long profile of the industry and its fight to have some of the newer regulations modified—a fight that is showing signs of success, from the producers' point of view.  The reason that the tide has turned in the regulatory environment is, of course, the advent of the Trump administration, and the new top safety official at the Interior Department, Scott Angelle, is a good part of the reason why.

Lipton describes Angelle's political background, the main features of which are a stint as lieutenant governor of Louisiana and as a booster of the oil and gas industry, sometimes on the payroll of such companies, although he has now reportedly divested himself of any oil- and gas-related holdings.  Angelle has spent much of his time since joining the Interior Department meeting with production company representatives to see what can be done to increase production while still meeting safety requirements.

In contrast to the optimism of Angelle and the workers Lipton interviewed who are looking forward to a relief from burdensome regulations and a listless business environment, is the dark view of environmental groups and defenders of workers rights such as Lillian Espinoza-Galla, who is described as a former oil worker and is now an industry safety consultant.  It is her words which provided Lipton with his headline:  "These regulations were written with human blood." 

A chronic problem faced by those who wish to regulate any technically advanced industry is the fact that the same people who typically know the most about the industry also benefit from it financially—either directly by working in it, or indirectly by studying it or consulting for it.  And here we come up against the attitude problem again.

There are some people who can both believe in the fundamentally benign nature of an enterprise and also see how it needs to be regulated and controlled by a third party—usually the government.  I suspect Mr. Angelle may be one of these people—I hope so, anyway.  The problem that can always arise is that in paying attention to the requests of companies that want to do a dangerous thing to make money, regulators will ignore or neglect the safety and environmental "externalities"—things that workers and the rest of the world will end up paying for if something goes wrong.  This happened in a big way with the Deepwater Horizon, and Lipton describes the indifferent to poor safety track records of several of the companies that are operating older offshore rigs today.

On the other hand, there are those who believe in their heart of hearts that an entire industry should simply be wiped off the face of the earth.  When people like this are put in charge of regulating that same industry, the industry sometimes has to fight for its life, as the offshore oil business did after all offshore drilling was shut down for a few months following Deepwater Horizon.  Given the complex and inertia-laden nature of regulations, the regulatory environment can't turn on a dime.  But just as important as what the regulations are at a given time is the intent and spirit behind them. 

I see this kind of thing even in my own profession of teaching.  If an indifferent student gets encouragement from a teacher who conveys that she believes he can do better than he's doing, he sometimes surprises even himself by doing just that.  On the other hand, a teacher who decides that some students simply won't achieve anything, and conveys that message to them, well, that discouraging teacher is going to get exactly what she expects:  namely little or nothing from those students, even if the same objective teaching material comes from both types of teachers.

I am no regulatory expert, and the question of whether the changes proposed by Angelle and his Trump-administration cohorts with regard to offshore fossil-fuel activities will lead to more accidents and spills is one that I am not qualified to judge.  Maybe they will, and that would be too bad.  But at this point, what is already clear is that the attitudes in Washington toward that business have changed for the better, and there is a feeling of optimism in the Louisiana oil patch that even New York Times reporters can't ignore.  And that much seems to be a good thing.

Sources:  Eric Lipton's article headlined "Trump Rollbacks Target
Offshore Rules ‘Written With Human Blood’" appeared on Mar. 11, 2018 online at
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/10/business/offshore-drilling-trump-administration.html.  I also referred to the Wikipedia website on the Deepwater Horizon accident. 

Monday, March 05, 2018

The Indecent Communications Decency Act


In George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984, the Ministry of Peace fights wars and the Ministry of Truth tells lies.  In the United States, internet service providers are currently immune from prosecution for sex trafficking carried out by third parties who use their services.  Why?  Because of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, or CDA.

To be fair to the drafters of the original legislation, they really did intend to clean up the Internet, which was a very different place in 1996 than it is today.  Congress passed and President Clinton signed the CDA with the intention of making obscene or indecent web content illegal.  But the following year, the U. S. Supreme Court agreed with the American Civil Liberties Union that the indecency restrictions violated the principle of free speech, and voided them.  But the court let stand a part of the law called Section 230.

Section 230 is a classic case of unintended consequences.  What it does is to make internet service providers (ISPs and other analogous enterprises such as Google and Facebook, neither of which existed in 1997) immune from liability when they carry material provided by third parties, such as for example sex traffickers.  The motivation for this section can be understood if we compare the Internet to an older form of communication, namely the newspaper.

Any newspaper that carries real estate ads must make sure that the ads do not discriminate in ways that restrict federal law that grants equal rights to housing.  Just to cite an egregious example, a person can't run an ad offering a house for rent to whites only, or to Sikhs only.  This is because newspaper organizations are legally the publishers of their content, and can be held liable for whatever they decide in their editorial wisdom to publish.

Without Section 230, ISPs would be treated like publishers of their content, whether they themselves originated it or whether it came from third parties.  Back in 1996, legislators worried that if the ISPs were liable for the third-party content on their sites, they would be reluctant to restrict it in accordance with the rest of the CDA because this action would make them look like publishers.  So, in its wisdom Congress granted legal immunity from liability to the ISPs, intending that this would free the ISPs to prohibit certain types of material without worrying about being sued for the material they didn't prohibit. 

If that sounds like tortuous reasoning, it is.  As the Internet grew more commercialized and sex traffickers in particular found what a boon it was to their business, concern mounted that Section 230 was providing a loophole for exactly the kinds of activity that the CDA was designed to prevent.  In 2013, for example, the attorneys general of 47 states wrote to Congress asking that the civil and criminal immunities provided by Section 230 be removed.  And just last month, a bill to do that was passed by the U. S. House, although it now awaits action in the Senate.

In the meantime, websites such as Backpage.com use the Internet to provide human beings for sale.  One study by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children found that 73% of all child sex trafficking cases that they dealt with involved this website.  Because of the CDA, the high-level operators of these types of exploitative sites continue to do their evil work while making sure that the only people who get caught are usually the victims:  the women and children trapped in sex trafficking operations. 

You would think that Google, with its corporate motto of "Don't do evil," would be on the side of those who wish to amend Section 230 to allow prosecution of illegal and heinous activities such as sex trafficking.  But you would be wrong in this case.  Last August, members of Congress received an email from Google's public policy counsel with the headline "CDA 230 Issue," and asked them not to support changes to Section 230, which the email termed "one of the foundational statutes for the Internet." 

If we follow the money, it is clear that a good fraction of all advertising revenues gleaned from the Internet involve sex in one way or another.  Probably that iceberg is too big to tackle all at once, but its visible tip, one of the most horrendous aspects of it, is the exploitation of homeless and stray children by the sex industry.  There are not a lot of moral issues on which most people agree anymore, but certainly one of them is the fact that enticing a 12-year-old girl into prostitution is about as wrong as you can get.  And the Internet is now the preferred way of advertising for this kind of thing.  And Section 230 makes it very hard or impossible to prosecute the kingpins of sex trafficking on the web.

In this blog I generally try to avoid political advocacy, because it's a guaranteed way to turn off approximately half my audience, at least.  But I'm making an exception in this case.  The National Center on Sexual Exploitation operates a number of programs focused on ending various kinds of sexual wrongdoing.  At their website endsexualexploitation.org they have legislative updates about the progress of H. R. 1865, the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, and S. 1693, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, both of which bills would amend Section 230 to allow state and local prosecution of those who use the Internet to advertise their sex-trafficking activities.  If you want to do something about this problem, email your senator soon.  And just to let you know that I don't give advice I wouldn't take, I just emailed my two senators about this myself. 

Sources:  The Drew Mariani Show on Relevant Radio, a Catholic radio network, carried an interview with a representative of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation on Feb. 27, which is how I learned about this issue.  The Center's website at https://endsexualexploitation.org/cda/ has background information on the CDA and details of legislation to change it.  I also referred to Wikipedia articles on the Communications Decency Act and its Section 230.  The text of the email from a Google lobbyist can be found at http://endsexualexploitation.org/wp-content/uploads/Google-Lobbyist-Writing-Congressional-Staffers.pdf.