A House subcommittee approved critical legislation for the fast-developing driverless car movement this week that sets specific rules for how many such vehicles can be on U.S. roads and the federal government’s role in regulating them. While it would give companies developing the technology the national framework they want, it also raises questions over who is best-suited to ensure this cutting-edge technology is safe.
Under proposed rules that will come before the full House for a vote in September, manufacturers could put up to 100,000 autonomous vehicles per company on U.S. roads every year, with a requirement that they certify the safety of those vehicles with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA. If approved, the proposal would preempt the current patchwork of state-level rules for operating self-driving cars and trucks. They build off a basic set of guidelines issued by President Barack Obama’s Transportation Department last September.
“The need for this legislation was laid out by the Obama Administration,” said Rep. Bob Latta, the Ohio Republican who chairs the House Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection. “From the front bumper to the back bumper, whether it is a car, a pickup truck or a van, how the vehicle works and is designed should be the province of the federal government as has been the case for more than 50 years.”
California, which has issued permits to 36 companies testing about 200 autonomous vehicles in the state, would no longer be able to set its own guidelines if the federal proposal becomes law. But whether federal safety officials ultimately are better-suited to validate manufacturers’ safety claims for the artificial intelligence, algorithms and next-generation vision and sensing technologies that go into self-driving cars remains in question.
“There’s this whole gray ground about who is in the best position to regulate these new cars, which go beyond the traditional car into almost driving a computer and software,” said attorney Sharon Klein, a partner in the autonomous vehicle practice for Pepper Hamilton LLP. “There’s been this debate about whether NHTSA as an agency should continue to be involved in deployment as well.”
The new rules rely on companies to certify the safety of their systems. The concern is that NHTSA, the country’s primary auto safety regulator, lacks the software and computer science expertise needed to validate their technical claims, Klein said.
“It comes down to a question of who is going to be watching the manufacturers?” she told Forbes.
Along with the growing number of robotic vehicles in California, states including Michigan, Massachusetts and Nevada are home to ever larger test fleets. Waymo, the Alphabet Inc. unit created last year to commercialize Google’s self-driving car technology, has already begun a large-scale public test in Arizona that may eventually grow to hundreds of driverless vehicles ferrying people around Phoenix.
General Motors, Uber, Lyft, Ford companies are following suit, and Tesla intends to give its electric vehicles full autonomous capability within the next year or two via over-the-air updates.
In 2016, NHTSA and the Transportation Department defined 15 areas that manufacturers need to comply with when they put self-driving vehicles on the road. That basic framework will put the agency in an administrative role, ensuring certain benchmarks are met, despite lacking specific knowledge of the software and algorithms powering autonomous systems.
“There’s no way NHTSA has the technical capability to do this right now,” said Mike Ramsey, an automotive tech analyst with Gartner Research in Detroit.
“NHTSA is really the arbiter of ‘does it appear that you have done all the things you need to do?’ It’s counting on the fear of deaths and lawsuits that could arise to prevent carmakers from doing something egregious,” he said.
Insurance companies will also act as a “shadow regulator” to keep manufacturers honest in their technical claims, Ramsey said. “The fact is unsafe (autonomous) technology would quickly become uninsurable.”
Consumer Watchdog, a safety advocacy group, called on congress to give NHTSA more resources to better address this major technological shift and opposed the reduced role of individual states to regulate robotic cars and trucks.
“Lost in the hyperbole over robot cars is a realistic assessment of the likely costs to both consumers and taxpayers particularly over the coming decades, when robot cars and human drivers will share a ‘hybrid highway,’ John Simpson, director of the Santa Monica, California-based group’s privacy project, said in a statement.
“Pre-empting the states’ ability to fill the void left by federal inaction leaves us at the mercy of manufacturers as they use our public highways as their private laboratories however they wish with no safety protections at all,” said Simpson, who called on California House members to oppose the subcommittee proposal.
For its part, the California DMV said it doesn’t comment on pending legislation. The department has been tasked with setting regulations for the testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles on state roadways since 2014. – Written by ,
Warning: COVID-19 Contact Tracing Apps Could Be Turned Into Tools For Domestic Abuse
If governments don’t focus on strong privacy protections in their COVID-19 contact tracking tools, it could exacerbate domestic abuse and endanger survivors, according to a warning from women’s support charities.
They’ve urged the U.K. government to include domestic abuse and violence against women and girls (VAWG) experts in the development of such initiatives.
Though the U.K. doesn’t yet have a widely available track and trace app, the charities – including Women’s Aid and Refuge – are already anxious enough about the current tracing program, where infected people are called up and asked to register themselves online as someone who has contracted COVID-19. They’re then asked to share details on people with whom they’ve been in contact so they too can be informed.
In a joint whitepaper, the nonprofits said they were anxious about contact tracing staff inadvertently leaking contact details of survivors to perpetrators. They also raised fears the program could be turned into a “tool for abuse.”
“For example, perpetrators may make fraudulent claims that they have been in contact with survivors in order for them to be asked to self-isolate unnecessarily, and in these circumstances survivors will have no means to identify the perpetrator as the original source,” they warned. “Perpetrators or associates may also pose as contact tracing staff and make contact with victims [or] survivors requesting they self-isolate or requesting personal information.”
The paper also claims abusers are already using the coronavirus pandemic for “coercive control,” in some cases deliberately breathing, spitting and coughing in survivors’ faces. As Forbes previously reported, the sharing of child abuse material has also spiked during global COVID-19 lockdowns.
As for apps, the report warned they required location services to be switched on. “While the NHS app itself doesn’t collect location data, if a perpetrator has installed spyware onto a survivor’s phone or is able to hack into it, then turning on location services will expose their location.”
Problems with Palantir?
The charities also raised concerns about a number of companies who’d partnered with the U.K. on the contact tracing initiatives. They said Serco, which is handling recruiting for contact tracing staff, “has a significant track record of failings and human rights violations, including running a controversial women’s immigration detention centre where staff have been accused of sexual misconduct and involvement in unlawful evictions of asylum seekers.” Serco also recently had to apologize for leaking email addresses of contact tracer staff.
Serco denies that it has any kind of significant track record of failing and human rights violations and that the evictions to which the charities are referring were in Scotland and were ruled legal. It also said that in seven years there had been no substantiated complaints about any sexual wrongdoing at the Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre, where reports had revealed allegations.
“We are proud to be supporting the government’s test and trace programme with our Tier 3 contact centre team working from pre-approved Public Health England scripts. This is important work and we would like to thank all our teams who have stepped forward. In just four week we mobilised many thousands of people, which is a huge achievement, and we are focussed on ensuring that all our people are able to support the government’s programme going forwards,” a Serco spokesperson said.
Palantir, the $20 billion big data crunching business, also raised an eyebrow. The company, which has secured millions of dollars in contracts to help health agencies manage the outbreak, has come in for criticism for assisting U.S. immigration authorities on finding and ejecting illegal aliens.
Palantir hadn’t responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.
UK’s delayed COVID-19 app
The charities’ warning comes as the U.K. announced its contact tracing app would be shifting to the Apple and Google models, which promise stronger privacy protections than the app being tested by the government. The main difference is in where user information goes. In the government’s app, anonymized phone IDs of both the infected person and the people they’ve been near are sent to a centralized server, which determines who to warn about possible COVID-19 infection. In the Apple and Google model, only the phone ID of the infected person is sent to a centralized database. The phone then downloads the database and decides where to send alerts. The latter means the government has access to far less data on people’s phones, pleasing some critics but aggravating the government.
Health secretary Matt Hancock said on Thursday that Apple’s restrictions on third-party apps’ use of Bluetooth may’ve been one reason the government’s own app wasn’t as successful as hoped. Bluetooth is being used to determine whether an infected person has been in close proximity with another person’s phone.
Earlier this week, Amnesty International cybersecurity researcher Claudio Guarnieri warned that global rollouts of contact tracing apps were a privacy “trash fire.” After analyzing 11 apps, he found many contained privacy shortcomings. So concerned was Norway that it suspended its tool.
Even with lockdowns easing, those who’re infected are still being advised to isolate. However, the NHS guidance says that “the household isolation instruction as a result of Coronavirus (COVID-19) does not apply if you need to leave your home to escape domestic abuse.” That message may not have been amplified as much as it should’ve been.
Twitter Begins Asking Users To Actually Read Articles Before Sharing Them
TOPLINE Twitter announced Wednesday that it will test a new feature that will prompt users to open up a link to an article before sharing it, which appears to be a move to further combat the spread of misinformation on the platform.
- Some Twitter uses may be subject to a prompt to click on a link if they try to retweet without reading the article first, billed by Twitter as a feature “designed to empower healthy and informed public conversation.”
- English speakers on Android devices will be the first to see the tests.Users will still have the ability to retweet a message without clicking the link first if they chose to tap through the prompt.
- According to Twitter Support, an official company account, the platform will only check if a user has clicked the article link recently through Twitter, not elsewhere on the internet.
- Twitter denied some skeptical users’ accusations that the platform is testing the feature to establish a revenue stream via click-through to outside websites, saying the platform is not testing ad products with the prompts.
- Twitter Support told one user it would watch to see if reminding users to read an article before they share it leads to more informed discussion.
“It’s easy for links [and] articles to go viral on Twitter. This can be powerful but sometimes dangerous, especially if people haven’t read the content they’re spreading. This feature (on Android for now) encourages people to read a linked article prior to retweeting it,” Twitter product lead Kayvon Beykpour commented upon the announcement of the feature testing.
The new prompt tests are the latest Twitter effort to curb the spread of misinformation on the platform. Twitter last month displayed fact-check tags on two of President Donald Trump’s tweets that featured misleading information regarding mail-in ballots and voter fraud. Twitter also rolled out testing for a new feature to allow users to limit who can reply to their tweets. The platform has faced criticism from both sides of the aisle in recent weeks, from conservatives over accusations of censorship and from the left for not doing enough to stifle misinformation.
Op-Ed: From Cashless To Digital: The Covid-19 Tipping Point
People’s safety concerns about transmission through contact has resulted in Covid-19 becoming a catalyst for the adoption of cashless payments globally and even more so in South Africa, with the disruption expected to effect lasting changes in the way people transact with cards and cash.
While consumers had already begun to embrace digital payment options prior to the pandemic, the health crisis is rapidly accelerating the adoption rate with more consumers seeking safer, contact-free payment methods.
This rapid adoption of digital payments will help shape a new normal as businesses begin to emerge from the more stringent levels of lockdown regulations and attempt to navigate their post-Covid-19 futures.
Derek Cikes, Commercial Director at Payflex, says the pandemic represents a watershed for the payments industry.
“The acceleration towards a cashless society is one of the key opportunities that has emerged from the pandemic, bringing the advantages of digital payments to the fore including lower fees, convenience, seamless delivery, greater security, and more flexible payment options,” says Cikes who adds that what makes this trend so interesting, is that historically, people used to hoard cash in times of crisis. Now, the opposite is occurring.
A study by MasterCard revealed that since the beginning of Covid-19 in South Africa, 89 percent of South African respondents have been using contactless methods to pay for groceries, 60 percent for pharmaceutical items, 39 percent for other retail items, 15 percent for fast food, and eight percent for transport.
Similarly, recent figures from Bain echo this, with estimates that by 2025, the adoption of digital payments could accelerate by a 5 – 10 percentage point increase globally, above what was previously anticipated at 57% before Covid-19 to 67% after Covid-19.
Are contactless payments here to stay?
Cash is perceived as a vehicle for the transmission of the virus. As stores, restaurants and other merchants begin to open their doors again, contactless payments are key in providing consumers with a much-needed sense of comfort and reassurance.
“Businesses have no option but to rethink their use of shared payment surfaces, with customers more conscious than ever of what they touch. People don’t want to touch ATM or PIN pads or have to hand their cards to store tellers. Once viewed as a convenience or nice-to-have, digital payments are now viewed as a critical service, providing a solution to limiting contact with other surfaces,” says Cikes.
Creation of new payment habits
From banking facilities like tap-to-pay, payment apps such as Zapper and Snapscan, to digital banking and e-wallet providers, South African fintech firms have reported significant increases in the use and adoption of digital payment methods since the outbreak began in March. The simple truth is, while these channels provide a convenient way of paying, they are also contactless, allowing consumers to pay for their goods while not having to exchange cash or cards with merchants.
“The perception of cards and cash as vehicles for transferring microorganisms has changed how people physically interact with their payments in favour of contactless options. With health and safety being top priorities, we anticipate this trend to become more permanent with hygiene measures and social distancing likely to become part and parcel of our daily realities for years to come,” says Cikes.
Retailers drive adoption of digital payments
Both online and brick and mortar retailers are helping to accelerate this trend with stores like Mr Price enabling consumers a contactless way to pay in-store pay via their app, and most South African retailers offering tap-to-pay-methods. There is also an expected uptick in omnichannel capabilities (being able to sell your goods through many channels such as website, app, retail, third-party platforms such as Amazon or Shopify) which bridges payments in any environment, physical or digital.
Another contactless payment method driving this trend is e-wallets with over 500 million mobile money users expected on the continent in 2020. In addition, it is anticipated that the capabilities of digital wallets will expand to offer features such as digital IDs and transaction monitoring and reporting, which is expected to create even more growth for this payment mechanism.
Flexibility needed more than ever
According to TransUnion’s Financial Hardship Survey, conducted in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, India, Hong Kong and South Africa, one in six people lost their job in early May, with defaulting on their bills just seven weeks away. 82% of consumers indicated their household income had been impacted, and on average, consumers who were impacted, expect they will be short by R 7 542.90 when paying bills or loans.
“Many people are financially stretched and need the support of alternative payment solutions to help manage their cash flow without incurring further credit card debt,” says Cikes.
A report by GlobalWebIndex shows that 83% of South African consumers are expecting flexible payment options from brands.
“We have seen this play out in the increased uptake of our Payflex Buy Now Pay Later payment solution, which allows people to make interest-free payments over two paychecks,” says Cikes.
With health, safety and financial security at the forefront of consumer sentiments, companies will need to provide payment options which meet these consumer needs.
“Digital payment solutions provide an avenue which safeguards against physical interaction, enabling both consumers and business to navigate the environment as the economy is restarted. These digital adoptions will not only help manage the current situation but will also have far-reaching benefits, facilitating a more customer-centric, efficient and resilient economy,” concludes Cikes.
-Derek Cikes, Commercial Director, Payflex
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