Monday, April 26, 2021

The Fatal Tesla Crash in Houston: What Really Happened?


Late on Saturday, Apr. 17, Dr. Will Varner, an anesthesiologist, said good-by to his wife and the wife of a friend, Everett Talbot, as the women left Varner's Tesla Model S for a home in a gated community in The Woodlands outside of Houston, Texas.  Apparently, Varner then offered to show Talbot "how it can drive itself" on a short test drive around the neighborhood, as subsequent testimony from witnesses indicates.  What is certain is that around 11:25 PM, the Tesla went off the road and crashed at considerable speed into a tree.  The car's massive lithium-ion battery caught fire, and photographs of the wreckage after the bodies were removed show only two door uprights standing on either side of the otherwise flattened and blackened wreckage.  First responders found the body of Talbot in the front passenger seat and that of Varner in the back seat.  Neither was at the wheel of the vehicle at the time of the crash.


Harris County Constable Mark Herman claimed to reporters that "no one was driving" the 2019 Tesla at the time of the crash.  But in a tweet the following Monday, Tesla CEO Elon Musk stated "Data logs recovered so far show Autopilot was not enabled and this car did not purchase FSD."  FSD stands for Full Self-Driving, a mode which still requires driver supervision.  Musk went on to say "Moreover, standard Autopilot would require lane lines to turn on, which this street did not have."


In defense of Tesla and its CEO, Tesla drivers are warned repeatedly to keep their hands on the wheel even if Full Self Driving mode is engaged.  This is like telling a five-year-old to keep your hand in the cookie jar, but just don't take any cookies.  Many Tesla drivers have given in to the temptation to engage Autopilot or otherwise surrender control of the vehicle to the system computer and allow their attention to stray, or even leave the driver's seat altogether, as Dr. Varner apparently did.  And the self-driving capabilities of the car are good enough that most of the time, absentee drivers can get away with it.


Musk bases his claim that Autopilot was not enabled on the fact that Teslas telemeter "periodic" updates via wireless links to the company.  Leaving aside the question of whether having your car inform Tesla of your every driving move is compatible with privacy, it is not clear how frequent these updates are.  If you read Musk's tweet like a lawyer, the phrase "Data logs recovered so far" could cover the possibility that the most recent data log Tesla has from the vehicle in question was many minutes before the actual crash occurred.  In other words, Musk could be saying nothing more significant than, "We know that ten minutes before the crash happened, Autopilot was not engaged."  But a lot can happen in ten minutes. 


The Houston police authorities have both impounded the wreckage of the Tesla and stated that they "eagerly wait" for the data that Tesla has recovered remotely.  It is unclear at this writing whether any data logs can be recovered from the incinerated wreck.  Unless Tesla has taken steps to harden the housing of the car's computer memory in a way similar to the kind of waterproofing and fireproofing that aviation black boxes have, I'd say that the remote data is all the data that anyone's likely to recover.


In the long run, removing the human element entirely from driving may significantly reduce automotive fatalities and injuries.  And when so-called "driver assist" systems such as lane-keeping, station-keeping at a fixed distance behind a leading vehicle, and automatic braking in emergencies are employed in the way they are supposed to be used—as assists to a real driver at the wheel, not as a substitute—studies have shown that they do reduce accidents. 


But the way Tesla has marketed their vehicles and promoted the driver-assist features as "Full Self-Driving" and "Autopilot" is misleading on the face of it.  Musk's cowboy reputation, which he appears to relish, may be a big reason why only 14% of Americans say they "would trust riding in a vehicle that drives itself."  If Musk really intends to sell a mass-market car rather than one that only doctors and stockbrokers can afford, that 14% number will have to increase a lot before a truly self-driving car can succeed.


In the meantime, deceptive and hypocritical marketing such as Tesla engages in contributes to the perception that alone among automakers, Tesla has really arrived at what the Society of Automotive Engineers calls "level 5" autonomous driving.  In a letter to California's Department of Motor Vehicles in March of this year, Tesla representatives admitted that the most advanced features of any Tesla vehicle amount only to Level 2 autonomy.  According to the SAE, Level 2 automation is simply driver-support, not automated driving, and requires that the driver constantly supervise the car's operation.  Clearly, many Tesla drivers are going beyond that.  Dr. Varner gambled on getting away with it and lost.


There's nothing new about automakers providing features on cars that some drivers abuse.  The muscle cars of the 1960s had power and acceleration that went way beyond anything normal driving required, and as a consequence some people wound up dying in fiery crashes after 140-mph joyrides.  But bigger engines and faster cars were just incremental changes that took place since the invention of the automobile.


Cars that seem to drive themselves are something truly new in automotive history, and we are still in the early stages of seeing how autonomous driving will play out.  While Tesla deserves credit for marketing what is probably the most technically advanced combination of driver-assist technologies on the market today, they have created a dangerous situation in which even a few spectacular crashes such as the one in Houston can put a damper on an entire technology and scare people away from it. 


If Tesla is smart enough to make a nearly autonomous car, they are also smart enough to figure out how to keep drivers from absenting themselves from the wheel until the future date when it is reasonably safe to do so.  By Tesla's own admission, that date is not here yet, but it is apparently ridiculously simple to fool a Tesla car into driving itself while you play your violin in the back seat.  Other car makers are taking more sophisticated precautions such as eye-motion detection to ensure that the driver-assist system always has a driver to assist who is paying attention.  It's way past time for Tesla to do something like the same.


Sources:  I consulted the following articles in the preparation of this blog:  "Feds investigating fatal Tesla crash in Texas" (Austin American-Statesman, 4/20/2021), "Tesla crash shows Autopilot isn't there yet," (Austin American-Statesman, 4/22/2021), Car and Driver,,

Reuters at, the New York Post at, at, and the Society of Automotive Engineers at 

Monday, April 19, 2021

Not Grading On the Curve: The White House's Infrastructure Report Cards


Since at least 1988, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has maintained what they call an Infrastructure Report Card that highlights critical shortcomings in the nation's public built environment.  The reasons for this are pretty obvious:  civil engineers and the construction industry in general live on the development and maintenance of infrastructure, and because so much of it is paid for by government funding, which in a democracy is supposedly under the control of the people, you should let the people know what they ought to be spending money on, infrastructure-wise. 


The ASCE report-card list found itself blinking in the spotlight of publicity last week when the Biden administration lifted it bodily and made it part of their promotional efforts to pass a multi-trillion-dollar spending package that is focused nominally on infrastructure.  The ASCE's definition of infrastructure and the Biden administration's definition are two different things.  To the best of my knowledge, the ASCE has no public position on the government's funding of child care, for example, but there is money in the spending package for that.  Let's focus on the grades themselves, though, and what role public engineered infrastructure plays in the body politic.


As someone who has handed out grades for more than thirty years, I would not be caught dead with a grade roster like the one the ASCE gave out.  The highest grade was C+ and the lowest was D-.  The first problem is that what you might call the dynamic range is very limited.  Whatever criterion was used to obtain the grades was rigged to produce basically the same score with only minor variations from state to state.  It's easy to guess why the ASCE avoided the extremes of the grade scale.  Giving out A's would be the same as saying, "You're fine, no need for any public works projects next year."  And an F would say that a state's infrastructure is a total failure.  I've been in one or two places around the world where something like those conditions prevail, but even Puerto Rico (the lone recipient of a D-) is better than that.


But why no B's?  I guess the ASCE wants to create at least some sense of alarm even in the states with the best infrastructure, such as Georgia or Utah.  There's enough variation in the grades to make people want to see how their state did, which is the main purpose of the exercise.  Beyond that, I don't believe there are too many profundities lurking in the various grades for the different states.  And thirteen states didn't even get a grade, either on the ASCE's own ranking or the identical one handed out by the White House. 


Looking beyond the short-term publicity aspect of the situation, what is the proper role and scale for public spending on engineered infrastructure?  There are extremes on both ends of the political spectrum.


Absolute libertarians would have us live in a totally private world—private companies would build roads and bridges, even municipal infrastructure like water and sewer systems, and the only publicly funded activities would be outward-facing things such as national defense.  I'm not aware of such an extreme being tried on a large scale in recent history anywhere in the world, and anyway, the complications of getting hundreds of bills every month for every little thing you did would be nightmarish from an individual point of view.


On the other extreme is socialism, in which everything from infrastructure to retail to manufacturing and services is run by the government.  Unlike extreme libertarian regimes, people have tried strict socialism a number of times, most spectacularly in the old USSR.  That regime gave rise to unprecedented misery and death and collapsed in 1990, which is not a strong recommendation. 


Most governments of varying political stripes tend to a mixture of private and public investment, as has been the case in the U. S.  During the 19th century, the main transportation network was built by private railway companies, which were however heavily subsidized by the federal government and eventually regulated by the first quasi-independent executive-branch agency, the Interstate Commerce Commission.  The railways were displaced in the 20th century by roads and eventually the Interstate Highway System, which was a federal-state partnership that most would agree was a success, though it forever changed the face of America.  President Eisenhower, who was one of the Interstate's main proponents, had the good fortune to propose his system at an all-time high of national prosperity, but we don't have that advantage now.


Nevertheless, the Biden administration is proposing to pay for the approximately $4 trillion infrastructure bill with higher taxes, mainly on corporations.  Corporations can pay higher taxes only if they charge higher prices, or else go out of business.  Neither eventuality is desirable from the consumer's point of view, but one or another will have to happen, probably some of both.


There is one school of thought that says the federal government could pay for true infrastructure improvements by simply printing money (or borrowing it from the Federal Reserve, which in my limited understanding of finance amounts to the same thing).  Distributist John C. Médaille claims that this move would not be as inflationary as it sounds, because the expansion of the economy that results from improved infrastructure would absorb the rise in the money supply.  If twice as much money is injected into an economy which soon produces twice as much value, any inflation will be temporary.


Médaille's theory would seem to apply mainly to new infrastructure, not just repairs on the same old infrastructure we've been putting up with all along.  But it's an interesting thought, and would avoid some of the negative consequences that higher corporate taxes will surely have, such as companies fleeing the U. S. altogether.  Another of Médaille's principles is that if you tax something, you're going to get less of it, and I don't think we want fewer and less profitable corporations, but that's what you'll get if you raise their taxes.


Other things being equal, fixing America's broken infrastructure is a good thing, but how to pay for it is a problem with no easy solution.


Sources:  I referred to a report on U. S. News's website at and the ASCE website's report cards on the states at  John C. Médaille's Toward a Truly Free Market is the best current exposition of the economic and social principles of the political philosophy called distributism that I know of.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Is There A Union in Amazon's Future?


Amazon is one of the biggest and most powerful corporations on Earth.  It is one of the main reasons why shopping nowadays usually involves a smart phone and a delivery truck rather than a drive down to a brick-and-mortar store.  Its tremendous dominance was only increased by the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down (and often eventually shuttered) many local and regional in-person businesses, but only improved Amazon's bottom line.  So when such a corporate giant faces a threat to unionize, it's big news.


Over half a million people work for Amazon worldwide.  Most of them are low-level warehouse employees who typically spend ten-hour shifts keeping up with the robots that tell them everything from which package to pack into which box down to how often they can go to the bathroom.  Working at an Amazon warehouse is no picnic, and yearly turnover rates approach 100% in some places.  In Bessemer, Alabama, at one of Amazon's warehouse facilities, a few workers decided they'd had enough and approached the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) to see if they could jump through the necessary hoops to hold an election about organizing a local.


A recent article on the Wired website points out that the twenty-first century has not been kind to U. S. unions.  Union membership, as a percentage of all workers, has declined from a high of 27 percent in 1979 to 11 percent more recently, so forming a union at an Amazon facility would be bucking the trend.


A personal note:  I am no fan of unions, having grown up in the famously anti-union state of Texas, and having had an unpleasant personal encounter with a faculty union at my former university in Massachusetts.  I won't say the union there was the main reason I left Massachusetts for Texas, but it didn't incline me to stay, either. 


Nevertheless, I recognize that if powerful corporations in need of employees are left strictly to their own devices in a competitive environment, they will tend to extract the maximum amount of labor for the minimum amount of pay, and that labor will work under conditions designed to maximize the corporation's profit, and not to make the workers' lives easier.  That seems to be what has happened in Amazon's warehouses, which are among the most automated in the world.  But even Amazon hasn't yet been able to devise a "lights-out" warehouse (no people inside) which can handle the unimaginable variety of stuff that Amazon sells.  So they hire lots of workers, work them very hard, and when the workers get tired of it or suffer work-related injuries, they leave and Amazon hires others.


Believe it or not, something like this went on for decades with another monopoly:  AT&T, back when it was the Bell System.  Look into the biographies of middle-class women who were in their 20s from the 1910s up to the 1950s, and the chances are surprisingly good that they spent time as a telephone operator.  It didn't take a lot of special training, the jobs were spread out all over the country, and typically an operator's career tided her over between high-school graduation and when she got married.  It was not as physically demanding a job as working for Amazon is today, but it was tedious, and eventually AT&T operators and technicians joined a union that became the Communications Workers of America (CWA) in the late 1940s.  The union led some strikes in the 1950s and 1960s, but by then the network was so automated that supervisory personnel stepped in to keep the phones ringing.  And as the number of operator jobs declined, so did the clout and influence of the union.


Did the CWA improve the lot of phone-company employees?  As there is no way to rewind history and run it again without the CWA, it's hard to tell.  And the same thing goes for the question of unionization at Amazon.  As with most controversial issues, the dire prophecies at both extremes are probably not going to happen.  While working at Amazon is not done for jollies, it also does not typically wreck the lives of all who enter its doors.  And while unionizing Amazon employees would no doubt take away some money from the company's bottom line, it's not like they're running on fumes.  One share of Amazon stock would currently set you back $3,300 these days, and it's nearly doubled since 2018. 


Human justice is always an inferior approximation to divine justice, and unions, being made of fallible people just like corporations are, are not the surefire answer to every worker's prayers.  Everything is so politicized these days, including unions, that whatever union might be formed for Amazon employees would perforce become a supporter of the Democratic Party, whose winning candidate for president is currently doing what he can to create a more favorable environment for unions generally.  If a union of Amazon employees would stick to its knitting and use every dime of dues to better the working conditions of its members, then I'd have no objection.  But if it went the way of all too many unions these days and turned into yet another self-perpetuating bureaucracy supporting a few well-paid union tycoons on the backs of the lowly exploited workers, then I'd say it should be sent to perdition, with no return address on the package.


The unionization vote in Bessemer failed, by the way, although the union is saying it's going to fight the results in court.  The times being what they are, chances that unionization of Amazon workers somewhere will succeed eventually are fairly high, and then we'll get to see if the RWDSU will live up to its promises.  If they do, well and good, because it would be nice if one of the few manufacturing-like job categories that is in a growth mode became a more viable option for more people—and if it paid enough to support a family, for instance, without landing the breadwinner in the hospital or rehab.  If they don't, well, the only way we'll get rid of it is if Amazon finally figures out how to run that lights-out warehouse, and lays off its last unionized warehouse worker some day in the future.


Sources:  The Wired article "As Amazon Workers Organize, They Stress: 'We Are Not Robots'" by Caitlin Harrington appeared on Apr. 9 at  I also referred to the Wikipedia article on Communication Workers of America. 

Monday, April 05, 2021

In Facebook We Trust


Consider what may seem to be an odd comparison:  Facebook and God.  For purposes of discussion, we will compare Facebook to the traditional Judeo-Christian God of the Old and New Testaments.  And we will restrict the comparison primarily to two matters:  communication and trust (or faith).


Users of Facebook communicate with that entity by entering personal information into Facebook's system.  That act of communication is accompanied by a certain level of trust, or faith.  Facebook promises to safeguard one's information and not to reveal it to anyone else without your permission.  Users can set up various levels of security ranging from public (anyone can see it) to very private (only a selected list of people can see it).  In entrusting what is sometimes very personal data to Facebook, the user expects Facebook to safeguard it in accordance with Facebook's own promises.


According to most traditions, God will not tolerate being used.  In the book of Luke, when the Devil tempts Jesus to throw himself from the top of the temple to show that God the Father will keep him from being injured, Jesus replies, "Thou shalt not tempt (test) the Lord thy God." In throwing himself off the temple, Jesus would have been using God for the purposes of performing a stunt, and so Jesus rightly rejected the Devil's proposal.


But believers in God, those who trust in him, communicate with God by praying.  God has made promises regarding prayer, such as listening to those who call upon him, and in the person of Jesus, he has said such radical things as ". . . whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son."  So those who trust in God will certainly pray for things they want, but they also trust God that his vastly superior knowledge and insight will lead him to do things differently than our limited minds can conceive.  It is part of wisdom to ask God for things we want, but not to tell him how to get them done.


What do Facebook users expect from their communications with Facebook?  Well, nobody I know puts stuff on Facebook simply for the pleasure of seeing it show up there.  The hope is that other people will see it and react in some way that one hopes is personally gratifying, or at least useful.  (I'm ignoring the commercial and institutional uses of Facebook for the moment, and concentrating on the personal user only.)  And by and large, most Facebook users see that happen enough to keep them using it, although most people I know who have used Facebook have sworn off it for a while at least once, usually during election season.


How about the trust angle of Facebook?  Yesterday (Saturday, Apr. 3), a hacker published a list of some 500 million phone numbers and other personal data scraped from Facebook.  News reports say that anyone with rudimentary data skills can access this list.  Facebook says that the list was obtained through a fault that they patched back in 2019, and the data is two years old.  Still, not a lot has changed in the lives of many of those people since 2019, and the result is that everyone whose data is on that list has another increment of concern to add to the dangers of online existence. 


For most people, this particular breach will not have serious consequences, except to underline the fact that what Facebook promises and what Facebook delivers are two different things.  This is not a surprise to some Australians who used Facebook to share news items until Facebook decided last February that they couldn't, as a move in response to a proposal by the Australian government to make Facebook pay for news items it puts on its own platforms. 


Both God and Facebook share the characteristic of inscrutability.  One never knows quite what either entity is going to do.  The believer explains that God is inscrutable to us because God knows everything and we don't.  The Facebook user explains Facebook's inscrutability because Facebook is a large, physically distributed organization whose inner workings and leading personalities are obscured from the general public, and even governments have a hard time figuring out what Facebook is up to. 


The comparison breaks down completely when we ask about the moral character of each entity.  By definition, God is the ultimate perfection of every virtue:  all-wise, all-knowing, and all-loving.  Facebook, on the other hand, is composed of fallible human beings, and exists primarily to make money, while staying enough within the law to operate profitably in the various jurisdictions around the world where it has a presence, which is essentially everywhere on earth.  To expect perfection from Facebook, or any other human organization, is to set oneself up for disappointment.


So while my sympathy goes out to everyone who uses Facebook (including my wife, who called my attention to this matter) and is now that much more concerned that their use will lead to unintended negative consequences, I can't say that I'm very surprised.  Facebook data represents such a juicy target to hackers that occasional breaches are well-nigh inevitable.  Facebook spends enough money on data security to ensure that whatever breaches occur are infrequent enough not to scare most of its users away, and spending a lot more than that would probably cut into their profits severely.  The only way to make Facebook perfectly unhackable would be if it had no users at all, and that's not going to happen any time soon.


It may seem that I've taken 900 words to say only that Facebook isn't God.  But even the obvious bears repeating every now and then.  If we listen only to what social media organizations tell us about themselves, it is tempting to attribute God-like qualities to them:  omniscience and omnipotence, for example.  And when they inevitably mess up, such as with the latest data breach, we rightly feel a sense of betrayal.  But the Psalmist advises us to "put not your trust in princes," even princes named Zuckerberg.  And that advice is still good today.


Sources:  Business Insider carried a story about the Facebook phone-number data breach at  The story of Jesus's temptation by the Devil is in Luke 4, and Psalm 146:3 advises us not to trust princes.