When developing driving tests for robot cars, complications abound

Robots, unlike humans, cannot drink. They also cannot be distracted and cannot fall asleep at the wheel.

But is a sober computer necessarily safer than a drunken driver?

That’s a question facing car companies and regulators alike as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration takes steps to both promote adoption of autonomous vehicles and ensure road safety.

In a country where 35,000 Americans are killed each year in automobile accidents, the promise of self-driving cars is clear.

Take the driver out of the car, advocates say, and fully autonomous vehicles could all but eliminate the majority of crashes.

Human error causes 90 percent of accidents, with drunken driving, distracted driving and driver fatigue contributing to 41 percent, 10 percent and 2.5 percent of crashes, respectively, according to the Department of Transportation.

Even safe human drivers could theoretically be outdone by autonomous vehicles (AVs), whose sensors are far more sophisticated than human eyes. While human drivers can see an average of 50 meters down the road, radar, lasers and cameras allow AVs to spot objects up to 200 meters away.

Those theoretical advantages of self-driving cars have yet to be proved, and experts say the technology will come to market before we can ever definitively demonstrate that AVs are safer than human drivers. The question that then remains is how to decide when the technology is safe enough.

“We are at a point now where we are trying to develop a driving test that instead of just covering a three-point turn and parallel parking can cover 99.9 percent of scenarios a car would encounter on the road,” explains Chan Lieu, former director of government affairs at NHTSA, who now advises the industry group Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets. “We are all jointly, between the industry and the agency, still trying to figure that out.”

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States race to let autonomous cars drive alone

Nine states and the District of Columbia allow tests of self-driving vehicles on their roads if a licensed human driver is in the car and ready to grab the wheel or hit the brakes.

Two states are paving the way for letting robo-cars drive alone.

Florida enacted a groundbreaking law in April allowing autonomous vehicles to go without human drivers. And last week, the Michigan Senate unanimously passed similar legislation, with the House expected to shortly follow suit.

The goal, backers of those bills say, is to give their states an edge in a fast-paced race to advance the autonomous vehicle industry. There’s also a need, they say, to start moving beyond the state-by-state regulatory patchwork that stifles innovation by preventing cross-country drives by autonomous cars.

Motor vehicles and drivers have been regulated by separate entities, with the Department of Transportation setting vehicle safety standards while states license drivers. But what happens when the car is the driver?

Try thinking about the issue as a three-tiered cake, suggests Amitai Bin-Nun, director of autonomous vehicle initiatives at Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE). The bottom layer is DOT deciding on vehicle safety measures, such as the thickness of windshields and the amount of brake power. In the middle layer, state governments regulate drivers, setting license requirements. On the top tier are local governments that set speed limits and oversee taxi licenses.

“The difficulty with autonomous vehicles is you effectively nix the bottom two layers because the car is the driver,” Bin-Nun said in an interview. “Now everyone thinks they have a stake in regulating all of it.”

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Want to know your car’s true mileage? It’s complicated

President Obama raised the hopes of American drivers when he unveiled fuel economy standards for motor vehicles in 2011.

“We’ve set an aggressive target, and the companies are stepping up to the plate,” he said. “By 2025, the average fuel economy of their vehicles will nearly double to almost 55 miles per gallon.”

But that’s not accurate.

By 2025, the average fuel economy of passenger vehicles will be closer to 44 mpg.

Why that 10 mpg gap? Blame goes to how the government measures automakers’ compliance with corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards. The test relies on obsolete assumptions and produces inflated fuel economy values.

U.S. EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration acknowledge the methodology is outdated and even created an updated version in 2006 that is now used for EPA labels that tell car buyers what fuel efficiency they can expect.

But the test for ensuring CAFE compliance remains unchanged thanks to the 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act. The law, which created CAFE, requires the government to stick with methodology devised more than 40 years ago.

With two procedures to measure fuel economy, the confusing result is a 20 percent gap between what consumers are told and what the government says it requires of automakers.

As cars become more advanced, that gap is likely to grow, giving advantages to automakers in regulations that are rarely noticed by car buyers.

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How Mazda ‘zoom-zoom’ turned fuel economy upside down

In 2007, Mazda Motor Corp. made a striking promise.

Though the company planned to continue exclusively using petroleum engines, its “Sustainable Zoom-Zoom Strategy” committed to providing “all customers who purchase Mazda vehicles with driving pleasure as well as outstanding environmental and safety performance.”

The statement may sound like a no-brainer in today’s marketing strategy, combining the three things customers want most.

But back then, the promise seemed untethered to the realities of mechanical engineering. The most efficient engines simply couldn’t produce the kind of power that more polluting engines could.

Five years later, Mazda delivered the impossible.

Its Skyactiv engine, still used by the company today, increased fuel efficiency and torque by 15 percent over previous models.

As a result, Mazda consistently tops U.S. EPA’s list for highest adjusted fuel economy performance. In model year 2014, Mazda had the lowest fleetwide adjusted carbon dioxide emissions. Its model year 2016 cars are all fully compliant with corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards, something only the electric car manufacturer Tesla Motors Inc. has previously achieved.

Environmentalists, mechanical engineers and federal regulators alike have hailed Mazda’s innovations as a success. Skyactiv has received particular attention this summer when the government began a review of whether its CAFE standards for 2021 to 2025 are realistically achievable for automakers.

Advocates say Mazda proves compliance is possible, even as other manufacturers argue the standards are too technically difficult and expensive to meet.

“What Mazda has done is turn everything on its head,” said John German, senior fellow at the International Council on Clean Transportation.

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Fast-charge plugs do not fit all electric cars

A driver looking to quickly charge an electric vehicle can’t necessarily plug into the closest fast-charging station.

Many won’t fit the car.

While automakers have agreed on uniform plug standards for slower types of charging used at home and work, they have not done so for what’s known as DC fast charging, which can fill a battery in less than 30 minutes.

German and American automakers use different connection standards from Japanese and other Asian manufacturers, while Tesla Motors Inc. uses its own system entirely.

Critics say the disparities hinder widespread adoption of electric vehicles, complicating plugging in.

“It’s like if you could only get gas for your Subaru at Sunoco stations and nowhere else,” said clean transportation advocate Chelsea Sexton. “Who would buy that car?”

Yet automakers say they have no interest in developing uniform charging standards and dismiss the implication that different plugs could be slowing sector growth. Instead, many are racing to build out fast-charging infrastructure that fits their cars before new models are released in 2018.

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Admin resists Bishop plan to scrap ‘silly’ military reviews

Rep. Rob Bishop uses a common refrain for justifying his effort to exempt the military from periodic environmental reviews of a handful of its ranges located on public lands.

“This is the bottom line: Nothing ever changes,” he told the House Armed Services Committee last year.

The Utah Republican, who sits on Armed Services and heads the House Natural Resources Committee, says the Pentagon wastes millions of dollars on assessments of the ranges every 25 years just to maintain the status quo. But critics say Bishop’s proposed solution is unnecessary and actually would increase the military’s burden.

For two years running, Bishop has sparked controversy by trying to insert language into the National Defense Authorization Act that could allow the services to keep using public lands set aside for the military but without any Interior Department oversight.

The provision singles out the largest wildlife refuge in the Lower 48 states, the Desert National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada. The Air Force jointly manages roughly 850,000 acres of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s 1.6 million acres of sagebrush sprawl.

Democrats and environmentalists say Bishop’s amendment would give the Air Force unfettered control over part of a refuge meant as protected habitat for bighorn sheep and endangered animals.

Bishop has consistently refuted those claims, saying he only wants to exempt the military from “silly” reviews of how the land is used. “The sad situation is nothing ever changes,” he told the House Armed Services Committee again this year.

Bishop’s claims about the assessments, however, do not hold up.

The Air Force took primary control of more than 100,000 acres of DNWR during the most recent assessment in 1999. The land is now a bombing range.

With the next review due to Congress by 2021, the Air Force is already eyeing construction of a radar and communications network in another section of the refuge, a designated wilderness study area.

Environmentalists say those facts, coupled with a close reading of Bishop’s amendment language, belie his true intentions.

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Meet the Army guy who fights for the sage grouse

As the Air Force’s deputy director of logistics, Eugene Collins looked after pilots, making sure they had what they needed to soar.

Now the Army’s deputy assistant secretary for environment, safety and occupational health, Collins is looking out for a feathery squadron.

“My new pilots are endangered species,” the retired colonel said. “I’ve gone from worrying about pilots and missiles and bombs to being concerned about tortoises, northern long-eared bats and greater sage grouse, making sure that we can respect and live in harmony with the environment.”

After serving 26 years in the Air Force, Collins retired and then returned to the Defense Department as a civilian. He was appointed last June as second in command of Army environmental programs, working under Katherine Hammack, the assistant secretary for installations, energy and environment.

Collins started the job as military efforts to shield endangered species — especially the greater sage grouse — were being closely scrutinized by Congress. He quickly found himself “in a learning mode” on managing resources and charged politics around them.

“I didn’t even know what a greater sage grouse was until I got here,” said the Greenville, Miss., native. “I grew up in the Deep South, and there are no sage grouse in Mississippi. I mean, we have a lot of chickens and roosters, but no sage grouse.”

The boisterous Collins likes to say his current job is a “far cry” from what he thought he’d do when he joined the Air Force 35 years ago.

“I went from being an airplane maintenance officer to taking care of these sage grouse, and I guess the only similarity there is that they both fly,” he said.

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No need for sage grouse language in authorization — Pentagon

Greater sage grouse protection measures do not adversely affect the military, and there is no national security reason to restrict federal conservation plans, according to letters from Pentagon environmental officials sent to House Democrats.

The letters, released publicly by House Democrats on the eve of a defense authorization bill markup in the House today, set the stage for a fiery debate over the bird.

“Overall, the Department of Defense would not expect a significant impact to military training, operations or readiness should the greater sage grouse be listed under the endangered species act,” wrote acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Readiness Daniel Feehan.

Feehan, along with environmental heads of the Army, Navy and Air Force, also made the casethat pre-existing laws and policies adequately insulate military bases from being adversely affected by any endangered species listing.

All four officials wrote in response to inquiries from Reps. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who serve as ranking members of the House Armed Services and Natural Resources committees, respectively.

Smith and Grijalva initially wrote to the military branches in March in order to pre-empt a repeat of last year’s defense authorization bill, when Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) inserted language into the bill that would prevent the Fish and Wildlife Service from listing the greater sage grouse as endangered for 10 years (E&ENews PM, April 27, 2015). They told military officials that while they “understand that actions being taken to conserve the greater sage grouse would not adversely affect military training, operations or readiness,” they wanted to clarify the Pentagon’s stance on the issue “in anticipation that this may once again be an issue of discussion during the upcoming consideration of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2017.”

They were right. Since the pair sent their letter, Bishop again inserted sage grouse language into the House version of the defense authorization. This year, his provisions would allow states with sage grouse management plans to block federal plans and prevent the Interior secretary from changing the bird’s conservation status until Sept. 30, 2026 (E&E Daily, April 26).

Yesterday, House Democrats used the DOD letters as a rallying cry, accusing Bishop of using the defense bill to deal with “issues that shouldn’t be in there at all.”

“They want to put Democrats in the position that we are against defense,” Grijalva said. “I think it is a waste of time and actually superfluous to what we have to do in this bill.”

Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.), who last year led the charge during the Armed Services markup to purge sage grouse language, vowed to do the same at today’s session.

“The defense bill really isn’t an appropriate vehicle for that, so we will be talking about it,” she said. “We will do whatever we have to do.”

For his part, Bishop defended his language accusing House Democrats of politicizing the military.

“Those were private letters that do not imply on official position,” he said.

Bishop said that, despite the letters, he continues to believe that sage grouse protections “have a huge impact” on the military and added that the issue is also about the freedom of Western states to deal with the concern as they see fit.

“To vote against this is to deny the reality of what is happening in the West,” he said. “Unfortunately, there are people on this committee who do not live there and who will take a military statement and make it political.”

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Quirky rule ensures top spot for Calif. in clean-car race

Californians drive almost as many electric vehicles as the rest of the nation combined, but the same regulations that made the Golden State a plug-in hotbed are keeping other states from following suit.

California’s aggressive zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) regulation is the only regulation globally that mandates sales quotas for ZEVs, requiring automakers to accrue credits either through vehicle sales or by purchasing them from other manufacturers.

While nine other states have signed on to California’s landmark ZEV regulation, automakers aren’t currently compelled to actually sell electric vehicles in those other states, and sales there remain paltry.

That’s thanks to the “travel provision,” a 2003 amendment added to the regulation at the behest of automakers that allows manufacturers to earn credits in every state for cars they place in any state.

In practice, the provision allows manufacturers to concentrate their alternative-vehicle sales in California, earning enough credits to comply with regulations in states like Massachusetts, Oregon and Maryland by only placing actual cars in the Golden State.

Indeed, in 2008, the California Air Resources Board (ARB) described the travel provision as “ensuring California as the central location for moving advanced, low [greenhouse gas] technology vehicles from the laboratory and demonstration phase to commercialization, where they are more critical to achieving the Governor’s GHG emission reduction goals.”

It’s worked. Today, 40 percent of electric vehicles on U.S. roads are in California. And while battery electric vehicle sales made up 1.41 percent of California’s auto market share in 2014, the other nine states using its regulations don’t come close, according to IHS Automotive, which tracks industry data. Among them, Oregon and Connecticut have the highest proportions of ZEV sales at 0.67 and 0.19 percent of market share, respectively.

The travel provision won’t be in place forever. It’s scheduled to end for battery electric vehicles in 2018, although the provision will remain for fuel-cell cars through 2025.

The provision elicits mixed feelings from officials in the other nine ZEV states, who say while it was initially useful in giving them time to install infrastructure, it acts as a loophole, making it easier for automakers to comply with an admittedly aggressive regulation while leaving other states’ pollution reduction goals by the side of the road.

“California intended for this discrepancy. It was part of this plan to give the automakers a leg up,” said Matt Solomon of the Northeastern States for Coordinated Air Use Management (NESCAUM), which helps manage ZEV policies for those states.

“But it has worked as intended,” Solomon said, “and we are now very much looking forward to the travel provision expiring so our states can continue to see the ZEV market goal we need in order to achieve our own climate goals.”


Because of a quirk in the Clean Air Act, states looking to mandate ZEV sales must adopt the California rule instead of writing their own.

Together, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont are known as Section 177 states, after the portion of the federal rule that allows them to partner with California.

The travel provision became part of the regulation in 2003 after the auto industry sued California to relax its ZEV regulation. The industry said the rule was too ambitious and included among its concerns that their requirements were increasing as more states signed onto the regulation.

“Auto manufacturers have expressed concern that the ZEV program obligations in California are multiplied across other states that have adopted California’s ZEV program,” CARB wrote in itsstatement of reasons for amending the regulation at the time.

Back then, the only Section 177 states were New York, Massachusetts and Vermont, all of which agreed to the travel provision as long as it sunset for battery electric vehicles by 2012.

“The provision was added in 2003 to reflect the need to deploy these vehicles as they were coming to market, to get them placed geographically with infrastructure that could support them and allow for market expansion,” said Elise Keddie, of ARB’s Emissions Compliance, Automotive Regulations and Science (ECARS) Division.

The decision made sense then. After all, Californians are known for being more culturally environmentalist and tech savvy — two attributes of electric vehicles’ early customers.

And unlike most states in 2003, California already had a charging network in place from when General Motors had briefly sold its EV1 in the mid-1990s. All the state had to do was retrofit the charging stations to adhere to new plug standards.

“Infrastructure has always been the biggest challenge for electric vehicles,” Keddie said.

Christine Kirby, who directs the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s transportation program, said that at the time, officials thought staggering when electric vehicle sales would be required in Section 177 states would give states time to develop infrastructure as car technology matured.

“It basically recognized that California was in a different place than we were, and that they would be more of a proving ground for the technology,” she said. “As the technology grew and became more acceptable, the marketplace would grow and the deal was the travel provision would go away.”

‘Free pass’

But since 2003, CARB has extended the travel provision twice — first to sunset in 2015 and then in 2018 — each time at the request of automakers.

In 2008, for example, Ford Motor Co. criticized ARB’s decision to let the provision expire in 2015 instead of later, commenting that it would “amount to an unprecedented quantum leap in battery electric vehicle volume from one model year to the next.”

“It is not realistic considering the limited niche market for those vehicles,” Ford commented.

Four years later, when ARB extended the travel provision for battery electric vehicles through 2017, Chrysler called the move a “logical flexibility for manufacturers.”

Mitsubishi agreed, commenting that “ZEVs should not be required in areas not prepared to develop sufficient infrastructure.”

All the while, Section 177 states pushed back, asking ARB to maintain its previous deadlines. In 2008, NESCAUM commented that “battery electric vehicles are becoming cost-competitive with gasoline cars and are becoming technically feasible for commercialization.”

Because of this, the vehicles “should not be included in the travel provision,” NESCAUM wrote.

In considering public comments on its ZEV regulations, ARB says, it weighs all input equally, not giving any preference to other regulators who rely on the rule.

“Our key stakeholders in ZEV activities include the [Section] 177 states, automakers (regulated parties), environmental organizations and advocates,” spokesman David Clegern said. “All comments are reviewed and considered without preference for the submitter, as all comments provide a valued perspective.”

To Simon Mui, who follows electric vehicle regulations for the Natural Resources Defense Council, extending the travel provision has not made much sense. Given the technological progression of battery electric vehicles in the past few years, Mui argues that the travel provision should have at least expired in 2015.

“Automakers’ lobbying has gotten them essentially to a free pass in these other states,” he said. “Now that the technology is there, though, California has basically allowed them to pass out of their science class because they did OK on their math test.”

‘We are ready’

Today, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers says the travel provision remains critical to its complying with ZEV regulations.

It “has been helpful to manufacturers, essentially cutting the number of ZEVs required by over half,” spokesman Daniel Gage said in a statement.

The travel provision does not prevent automakers from placing vehicles in Section 177 states. Indeed, some manufacturers, like Tesla, Nissan and BMW, make a point of selling cars in every state, regardless of its ZEV regulations.

But the fact remains that of the 11 model year 2015 battery electric vehicles technically available in the United States, only a handful are available for sale outside California.

And though Section 177 states represent an auto market 1.5 times the size of California’s, those areas lag in electric vehicle ownership, thanks to the travel provision.

“In the 2012 rulemaking process, [ARB] recognized that extending the travel provision for battery electric vehicles through 2017 would result in significantly fewer electric cars on the road through 2017, and that is exactly what has occurred,” Massachusetts’ Kirby said. “Availability of vehicles in our states, in terms of both numbers and models, has been spotty.”

Kirby said delaying the full force of California’s ZEV regulations has also affected Massachusetts’ ability to meet its clean energy and climate goals. Noting that California wrote its ZEV regulations as a means of improving air quality, Kirby said she sometimes believes the state and automakers forget “we have greenhouse gas reduction targets, too.”

“At this point, the travel provision has served its purpose,” Kirby said. “The market has advanced, we have invested seriously in infrastructure, in a rebate program. We are ready.”

‘Some kind of cliff’?

The big question for Section 177 states is how quickly their electric vehicle markets will rebound in 2018 after the travel provision has expired and automakers can no longer use California sales as place holders for cars in other states.

Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers spokesman Gage predicts that the number of electric vehicles on roads nationwide will be required to jump “about 150 percent.”

“It will be a real problem unless consumer interest swells, and that will likely not happen without significant incentives and sizable investment in infrastructure,” he said.

But automakers will be aided by the fact that California’s ZEV cap-and-trade program is experiencing a credit glut unrelated to the travel provision (Greenwire, Jan. 4).

Already in California, automakers don’t have to increase annual ZEV sales rates to comply with regulations because they have been able to bank credits by purchasing them from companies like Tesla.

When the travel provision sunsets in 2018, automakers will still be able to use their accumulated credits to avoid putting more vehicles on the road in Section 177 states.

In fact, Tesla Motors’ vice president of development, Diarmuid O’Connell, says his company’s analysis shows manufacturers have enough banked credits to maintain current annual sales rates in Section 177 states through 2022, at which time ZEV sales would only need to account for 2 percent of the auto market share.

“People think there is some kind of cliff when the travel provision expires that all of a sudden you will see a visible difference in the amount of battery electric cars on the road in New England, and that’s just really not the case,” he said.

Solomon of NESCAUM agrees with that projection. He said Northeastern states expect banked credits will “enable manufacturers to comply for several years without dramatic increases in electric vehicle deployments” after the travel provision expires in 2018.

That “grace period” is one reason why NESCAUM believes sunsetting the travel provision earlier would have been beneficial.

“We don’t expect any dramatic earth-shaking shift in the market to occur immediately in 2018,” he said. “But we do want a continuing, gradual increase in the market share for these vehicles.”


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Starry-eyed engineers embrace Musk’s Hyperloop dream

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Welcome to the 21st century space race: The goal isn’t to put a man on the moon, it’s getting a traveler from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 30 minutes or less.That’s the Hyperloop vision of SpaceX and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk. And thousands of students converged on Texas A&M University last weekend in a bid to make this “fifth mode of transportation” happen.

Three years ago, Musk published a white paper proposing his idea for revolutionizing transit by transporting passengers in a pod traveling at subsonic speeds of 750 mph through a tube, somewhat similar to the old pneumatic office mail delivery systems (ClimateWire, Aug. 13, 2013).

Too busy building rockets and electric vehicles, Musk is merely interested in facilitating Hyperloop, creating a competition for students to design pods for the system (E&ENews PM, June 15, 2015).

The more than 100 teams at Texas A&M were semifinalists chosen from a field of 1,700 applicants. At the end of the weekend, SpaceX gave the 22 finalists $150,000 each to build prototypes that will be raced on a test track at company headquarters this summer.

In his paper, Musk described Hyperloop as the most promising solution to congestion, pollution and the high cost of high-speed rail “short of figuring out real teleportation, which would of course be awesome.”

Skeptics laughed off the proposal as something from “Star Trek.” Today they remain doubtful, calling the pipe dream too far out to ever replace high-speed rail.

But a little bit of cynicism didn’t bother the competitors in Texas.

“Everything is science fiction until someone finds a way to make it science,” said Patrick McKeen, a junior from Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif.



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