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OpenMarket: Automobiles and Roads

  • No, Politicians Shouldn't Outlaw Driving to Usher in Self-Driving Cars

    October 5, 2015 2:16 PM

    Over at Fusion, Kevin Roose has what is perhaps the worst article on automated vehicles (AVs) I’ve ever seen. In it, he calls for a near-term phase-in of a blanket national driving ban—specifically, beginning it in 2017 and completing it in 2020. That’s quite an ambitious “phase-in,” given that the average age within the U.S. car and light-truck fleet is more than 11 years.

    This call to action isn’t based on facts about where the technology is today or what we can reasonably expect it to offer consumers over the next decade (or even that pesky thing called “the law”); rather, it assumes that fully automated, self-driving highway vehicles are essentially already here while providing no evidence that they’re near the deployment stage. That’s because they’re not.

    To be clear, automation is already here. But automation is a spectrum, with technologies such as adaptive cruise control on one end and autonomous taxis on the other. Here’s how the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration currently defines the various levels of automation:

    And here’s how SAE defines them:

    Note that these levels are not without criticism, but they’ll be useful in keeping our definitions straight. In his piece, Roose is referring solely to NHTSA Level 4 and SAE Level 5 vehicles. This is well beyond the NHTSA and SAE Level 1 vehicles you can purchase right now with features such as adaptive cruise control. So, when do people who spend their careers working on this technology and related issues believe that NHTSA Level 4/SAE Level 5 vehicles will be available to consumers?

  • USDOT Wants it Both Ways with Off-Peak Freight Movements

    September 29, 2015 10:27 AM

    Over at the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Fastlane blog, Greg Nadeau, administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, has a post touting USDOT’s support for off-peak freight delivery pilot projects underway in New York City and Pensacola, Florida.

    The problem of local traffic is well-known to any major U.S. city; truck operators suffer when forced to crawl through crowded city streets, and residents suffer when trucks block travel lanes or parking access. With commuter traffic lighter and parking more available, off-peak hours should make delivery easier for truck drivers as well as peak commuters and people scrambling for parking.


    Funding in both pilots will be used to help businesses retool their operations to accommodate shipments during off hours and help distributors reconfigure routes and supply chains through low-cost, operational strategies.

    Now this is all well and good, and Administrator Nadeau deserves credit for promoting a smart strategy to ease congestion and improve freight flows. However, it is a bit ironic for USDOT to be touting the very real benefits of off-peak freight movements while they are simultaneously working to push more freight movements into the morning peak hours.

    Back in 2011, USDOT’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) revised the hours-of-service (HOS) rules that must be followed by truckers and bus drivers, aiming to reduce crashes associated with fatigue. CEI criticized the proposal in formal comments to the agency, arguing that the HOS rules would not improve safety and that the agency was abusing scholarly research to support its bogus findings.

    One particularly egregious problem with the HOS rules involves off-peak scheduling. Under federal regulations, truckers may work up to 60 hours over seven days or 70 hours over eight days (commonly referred to as the weekly limit), in addition to a 14-hour daily work limit and 11-hour daily driving limit. Drivers are permitted to “restart” the weekly limit by taking 34 hours off duty.

    Under rules that came into force in 2013, drivers would be required to include two consecutive 1am to 5am periods in that 34-hour restart and would only be able to restart once per week. Confused yet? Take a look at this handy chart from the Journal of Commerce:

  • New York Times Editorial Board Clueless on Smart Car Safety and Security

    August 18, 2015 11:07 AM

    On Sunday, August 9, The New York Times ran an editorial, “Protecting Cars from Hackers,” discussing the recent publicized hacking incidents of Fiat Chrysler and Tesla vehicles, with Fiat Chrysler voluntarily recalling 1.4 million vehicles to fix the bug.

    As our cars get smarter, we can expect more of these types of incidents. To be sure, there are new risks presented by the rise of smart cars—particularly when automated systems take over driving task responsibilities previously held by drivers—but the Times’ editorial board’s recommendations will not make us safer. In fact, if we listen to them, we will end up with more highway fatalities and injuries.

    The Times recommends:

    The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which regulates auto safety, insists that it is closely monitoring these new technologies, and is running tests on car software. The agency has also encouraged the industry to create an information-sharing center through which companies can exchange information on security threats.

    That’s good news. But N.H.T.S.A. should also start writing basic security standards that require automakers to test the software and make sure a car’s wireless system cannot be used to control the engine and brakes. The agency’s regulations on airbags, seatbelts and crash testing have helped save countless lives. New rules for software that operate cars could prove just as important.

    There’s a lot wrong here, so let’s unpack a few points. The Times wants NHTSA to start issuing a flurry of rulemakings on automotive cybersecurity and to “make sure a car’s wireless system cannot be used to control the engine and brakes.” My engineer friends will have already winced at the mangled and incoherent terminology deployed by the editorial writers, but what would prohibiting “a car’s wireless system” from “control[ling] the engine and brakes” mean in terms of, say, self-driving taxis that may be on the horizon? Based on any reasonable reading of the Times’ misguided call to action, it would outlaw them. Not only will automated vehicles likely be far safer, automated taxis would allow more people to live car-free lifestyles, something I thought was supported by the progressive Manhattan elites that populate the editorial board.

  • Reimagining Surface Transportation Reauthorization: Pro-Market Recommendations for Policy Makers

    June 30, 2015 10:15 AM

    Today, CEI published my white paper, “Reimagining Surface Transportation Reauthorization: Pro-Market Recommendations for Policy Makers.” In it, I lay out the case for making some small but important changes to federal surface transportation policy.

    Traditionally, free market fiscal conservatives have advocated for devolving all federal highway and transit programs to the states. To be sure, we at CEI support this eventual goal. Unfortunately, it is wholly unrealistic at this time. But there are still things that can be done to move closer to this direction. We suggest a strategy of “de facto devolution,” which basically involves keeping federal spending steady while increasing the flexibility of states to fund and finance their own highways. To accomplish this, we recommend the following changes to federal highway policy:

    • Repeal the current federal prohibition on states tolling their own Interstate segments for reconstruction purposes, codified at 23 U.S.C. § 129.
    • Uncap or greatly increase the national cap on private activity bonds, currently set at $15 billion, codified at 26 U.S.C. § 142(m)(2)(A).
    • Provide technical and financial assistance to states looking to launch their own mileage-based user fee pilot programs.

    With respect to mass transit, most free market fiscal conservatives have long and correctly held that transit is an inherently local issue. As such, it has no business receiving federal funding, let alone the current 1/5 share of total federal surface transportation spending—especially given the fact that mass transit accounts for less than 2 percent of person trips nationwide. You read that correctly: the federal government currently spends 1/5 of its surface transportation dollars on a mode that accounts for 1/50 of person trips.

     The federal politics of mass transit could be described as an unfortunate mix of parochial and ideological interests battling over non-federal issues. Given that serious federal mass transit spending cuts are at the moment politically difficult, fiscal conservatives and proponents of sound national transportation policy should embrace some more modest goals to rationalize federal mass transit policy. We recommend the following changes to federal mass transit policy:

    • Work to end Highway Trust Fund bailouts and raise public awareness of the huge discrepancy between transit funding and transit use—that 19 percent of federal surface transportation funding is currently directed to a mode that accounts for less than 2 percent of trips nationwide.
    • Roll existing discretionary transit grants programs such as New Starts into the Urbanized Area Formula Program.
    • Realign spending priorities to a fix-it-first-strategy by allowing federal transit funds to be used for maintenance projects.

    Read the whole white paper here.

  • Long Mass Transit Commutes Are Horrible for Your Health

    May 20, 2015 5:12 PM

    Joseph Stromberg at has an article up arguing that “commuting alone by car” is “associated with obesity, high blood pressure, sleeplessness, and general unhappiness” relative to other transportation modes. His solution to unhealthy lengthy commutes is to increase carpooling.

    Back in 2012, I argued against another now-Voxxer, Matthew Yglesias, on the supposed health harms of auto commuting. The problem, as Census data make clear, is that other than those who walk to work, people commuting by driving alone generally have the shortest commutes. Those using public transit take on average twice as long to make their commuting journeys as those who drive by themselves.

  • Not So Fast: Fatally Flawed Research Asserts Alcohol Taxes Save Lives

    May 12, 2015 10:52 AM

    Last month, researchers at the University of Florida published a study in the American Journal of Public Health that concluded, “Increases in alcohol excise taxes, such as the 2009 Illinois act, could save thousands of lives yearly across the United States as part of a comprehensive strategy to reduce alcohol-impaired driving.” Their study presented the case that the 2009 tax increase resulted in a statistically significant reduction in alcohol-related deaths in Illinois. However, as I pointed out in a blog post, there only appears to be a reduction in fatalities because of the authors’ selective inclusion and exclusion of data. Rebecca Goldin, Director of and Professor of Mathematical Sciences at George Mason University, found even more flaws in the research.

    In her post, Rebecca takes a bird’s eye view of the crash data in Illinois between 1999 and 2013. She finds a steady decline during this 10-year period with “hardly anything special at all going on at the end of 2009.” Looking closer at the data, she noted (as did I) the curious exclusion of data after 2011. “Results should be resilient to changes in choices, such as whether to use data published 2011-2013,” Goldin notes. When added to the evaluation, this 2011-2013 data shows a small decrease immediately after 2009, but then shows a steady increase in alcohol-related traffic deaths in Illinois. She also found that as a proportion of total traffic fatalities, alcohol-related fatalities on the road have been increasing since 2009 (though only by 2 percent—a statistically insignificant amount).

    Of course, the real story here is that breaking the data at year 2009 may not be an appropriate way of measuring the trends, and certainly it’s not appropriate to “blame” the excise tax for the proportionally increased alcohol deaths in the context of decreasing deaths associated to alcohol. But by the same logic neither is it appropriate to conclude that the excise tax has been saving lives.

    Finally, in addition to the “creative math” and error of conflating correlation with causation (bad scientists, bad!), there’s another potential problem with the study. The grant provided by the National Institutes of Health lists the purpose as “to develop a research program of HIV prevention focused on the intersection of event-level alcohol use… and sexual partner selection among adolescents.” There is no mention in the grant description about taxes or motor vehicle crashes. I say this is a “potential” problem because I have been unable to get answers from anyone at the NIH or the University of Florida researchers who worked on the project. My questions were simple: What was the rationale behind using an AIDS grant for alcohol tax research? And is this sort of change in scope common practice?

    It’s one thing to have public health advocates peddling flawed research in order to advance personal agendas, but it’s another entirely to use taxpayer money to do so.

  • Why Is the Federal Government Threatening Times Square's Billboards?

    May 6, 2015 1:24 PM

    Colleagues tipped me off to an absurd news story about how the federal government is threatening to punish New York City for its famously gaudy Times Square electronic billboards:

    It is known as the “Crossroads of the World,” the “Center of the Universe” and “the Great White Way,” but Times Square could become like the “Black Hole of Calcutta” if the federal government has its way, CBS2’s Marcia Kramer reported Tuesday.

    The feds say many of Times Square’s huge and neon-lit billboards must come down or the city will lose about $90 million in federal highway money.

    The edict comes from a 2012 law that makes Times Square an arterial route to the national highway system. And that puts it under the 1965 Highway Beautification Act, which limits signs to 1,200 square feet. It took the feds until now to realize that Times Square was included, Kramer reported.

    City Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg agrees.

    “The signs in Times Square are wonderful. They’re iconic. They’re not only a global tourist attraction, they’re important to the economy,” Trottenberg said.

    She said she’s not going to let it happen.

    “We’re not going to be taking down the billboards in Times Square. We’re going to work with the federal government and the state and find a solution,” Trottenberg said.

    Some have suggested that this is an example of regulators run amok. It isn’t. This is a classic example of Congress passing stupid laws, ordering regulators to implement them stupidly, and then forgetting about them until unintended consequences spring up down the line. Allow me to explain what’s going on here, as virtually all the news articles and commentary out there provide next to zero context.

    As the article noted, in the last surface transportation reauthorization (MAP-21 Act of 2012), Section 1104 created what is now known as the “enhanced National Highway System.” The enhanced National Highway System refers to MAP-21’s amendment to 23 U.S.C. § 103(b)(2)(B) to include, “Other urban and rural principal arterial routes ... that were not included on the National Highway System before the date of enactment of the MAP-21.”

    In a nutshell, this provision added roads that meet the definition of “principal arterial” to the National Highway System that were not previously designated as components of the National Highway System. Why might someone want to do this? Because arterials not designated as part of the National Highway System are not eligible for Federal-aid Highway Program funding. Based on the current statutes and regulations governing National Highway System designations, roads evaluated to be principal arterials by the Federal Highway Administration’s Highway Performance Monitoring System were automatically added to the National Highway System under Congress’s 2012 law. This included some roadways in New York City.

  • Google Now Opposes State Automated Vehicle Legislation?

    April 22, 2015 11:54 AM

    Back in 2012, I warned that California’s bill (now law) that would explicitly recognize the legality of automated vehicles and order state regulators to develop a detailed safety framework would tie the hands of innovators. In those days, Google was the chief proponent of such legislation, with California Gov. Jerry Brown signing the bill into law (sponsored by now-Secretary of State Alex Padilla) at Google’s headquarters, with Google co-founder Sergey Brin looking on.

    That 2012 law spawned a series of chaotic regulatory actions at the California Department of Motor Vehicles, which has still failed to implement the required licensing and operations regulations and which also imposed regulations that forced Google to dial back its efforts to produce and test a fully automated vehicle on public roads. Ironically, these now-forbidden operations were likely completely legal before California enacted its autonomous vehicle law in 2012.

    Fortunately, Google appears to have learned from its mistakes and is now opposing a similar piece of legislation in Texas. The technology giant isn’t explaining its about-face in the Longhorn State, but the automakers’ chief lobby, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, was more candid:

    The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents 12 automobile manufacturers including General Motors and Ford, was more forthcoming. Spokesman Dan Gage said the group was concerned that the bill might create state-specific standards related to safety or manufacturing that could tap the brakes on the development of the technology.

    “We don’t feel that legislation in this area in Texas right now is necessary,” Gage said. “The concern is by putting pen to paper you actually could prematurely limit some of those types of developments.”

    Gage said many of his group’s members are testing autonomous vehicle technology, but he could not say whether any are doing so on Texas roads or highways. Such testing would likely be legal here, as Texas law does not address self-driving vehicles, according to state officials. Google drove its self-driving car on Texas roads during a trip to Austin to promote the technology in 2013.

  • Could Alcohol Taxes Reduce Fatal Car Crashes?

    April 9, 2015 2:46 PM

    A new study from the University of Florida asserts that because Illinois instituted an alcohol tax increase in 2009 and the rate of alcohol-related traffic fatalities have declined 26 percent since 2009, the tax must certainly be responsible for the decline in deaths. Of course, news outlets have begun touting the study as evidence that increasing taxes results in fewer deaths. Are they right?

    A team of UF Health researchers discovered that fatal alcohol-related car crashes in Illinois declined 26 percent after a 2009 increase in alcohol tax. The decrease was even more marked for young people, at 37 percent.

    So, was it the alcohol tax increase that led to the state’s declining alcohol related traffic deaths? To answer that question, one need only examine the rate before and after the tax increase went into effect and compare it to the rest of the United States. Looking at these numbers (provided by DISCUS), it becomes clear that the rate of alcohol related traffic fatalities was declining faster in the year before the tax increase went into effect. Furthermore, since the state jacked up the alcohol taxes, Illinois has experienced a slower decline than the rest of the nation.



    Repeat after me: correlation does not equal causation. The study’s authors claim that since the 2009 tax increase went into effect, Illinois saw a 26 percent reduction in traffic fatalities. That certainly is an impressive decline. But just because two things correlate, doesn’t mean that there is a causal relationship. For example, just because the divorce rate in Maine correlates almost one-to-one with the rate of margarine consumption in the U.S., it doesn’t mean one caused the other. 

    Furthermore, the whole nation saw a decline in alcohol-related traffic deaths between 2001 and 2011

  • Administration's GROW AMERICA Act 2.0 Mixes Bad with Good

    March 30, 2015 12:11 PM

    Today, Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx unveiled the administration’s latest surface transportation reauthorization proposal. Like the previous White House bill, the latest iteration of the GROW AMERICA Act is unlikely to go anywhere on Capitol Hill. The president’s proposal to fund much of his increased infrastructure spending relies largely on a one-shot tax repatriation scheme, something that will do nothing to improve the long-run fiscal position of the Highway Trust Fund. In addition, the White House proposal would make the very wasteful TIGER discretionary grant program permanent. See this post for more on what good and bad surface transportation policy looks like.

    But the administration’s GROW AMERICA 2.0 proposal isn’t all bad. In fact, it contains two very smart elements that Congress should attach to their own reauthorization package.

    First, the administration proposal would repeal the current prohibition on states tolling their own Interstate segments, codified at 23 U.S.C. § 129, while also repealing the three-slot Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program, which was established by the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century of 1998 and has failed to promote Interstate reconstruction through tolling. Contrary to popular belief, the states, not the federal government, own and operate the Interstate Highway System. Currently, the only tolled segments of the Interstate system were grandfathered in by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. No federal-aid funds can be used to maintain these roads, which constitute a little over 6 percent of the Interstate Highway System. Tolling offers a number of advantages over fuel tax or non-user funding. Reason Foundation’s Bob Poole has developed a plan to reconstruct and modernize the Interstate Highway System through the use of all-electronic highway tolling, something policy makers should consider as an alternative to gas tax increases and Highway Trust Fund bailouts.

    Second, the current cap on tax-exempt private activity bonds, which bring financing parity to infrastructure development by allowing the private sector to take advantage of similar debt instruments as the public sector, would be raised from $15 billion to $19 billion (see 26 U.S.C. § 142(m)(2)(A)). Ideally, this cap would be repealed, but increasing it is at least a step in the right direction.

    To be sure, there is little in the latest GROW AMERICA Act for free marketeers to love. But Congress would be wise to take seriously the administration’s recommendations on Interstate tolling and private activity bonds.

    For more on federal surface transportation reauthorization, see CEI's agenda for Congress, Free to Prosper.


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