Tag Archives: courts

Self Driving Cars, Pitttsburg, Uber, and Us, Overlooking the Atlantic

So I’m here in a very nice seaside rented home on an obscure North Carolina island with the family. The kids and grand kids are off in various swimming/biking/exploring modes and rain is forecast. I’ve been working on my congressional campaign, and so distracted from blogging. Nevertheless, there is some new raw material that beg for expression, I’m on the porch watching storm clouds gather for the first time this week, so let’s organize the news of the last month and see if there’s anything that we on the commission need to heed.

Kris retired two years ago and decided that she liked to travel with me as I do locums work. This means that we take a taxi to and from the airport, a truly awkward experience. We call a day ahead, call half an hour beforehand, and still they don’t show up. The drivers are invariably African and hostile until my alcoholic personality disorder kicks in; “Africa, big place, where in Africa?” “Ethiopia.” “The Highlands or coast?” “Oh, you know Africa! The HIghlands.” Kris; “You’re Christian? Did you get kicked, go to Libya?” By this time the guy is wracked with emotion, ready to talk about his family, hopes, past, and we’re at the end of the journey. It costs $13.40. I try to give the guy 15 dollars, if I can find it as it’s often dark or worse yet, raining. Awkward.

Then the people at the airport decreed that Taxis bringing folks from Kentwood had to charge a minimum of 15 dollars. I don’t know how the airport can write a rule like that or even enforce it. We at the city commission should investigate.

This diktat caused me to rebel. I downloaded Uber and we have since had an excellent experience. The price is $7.30, half of a taxi, it automatically goes on my credit card and so is a recorded as deductible cost of doing business, the cars are uniformly interesting (two Priuses) and the drivers are all fascinating (a guy who sold art, several retired executives escaping their wives, an African American who was damned if he would ever work for somebody again.) In creative moments I calculate that if Uber can get us to the airport for 7 dollars, that they can get us to Meijers for 5; maybe get rid of one of our cars……

Then the Economist threw a bomb. It devoted a recent issue to the Uberization of transportation. It’s not what our Uber drivers had envisioned. Uber wants to get rid of all their drivers and instead operate a fleet of self drivers.-enough self drivers to replace most car functions as Americans now use them. They would operate a large fleet, cars constantly running, that would pick people up at their front doors and deliver them to their places of work, doctor’s offices, bars and at Aunt Tillie’s, then go off to pick up yet another customer.. The cost would be minimal, safety high, efficiency nearly perfect.

Wow.

Then Uber announced that they were testing 4 Ford Focuses that had been modified to be self drivers in Pittsburg.    Pittsburg!   Fifth Avenue is the only straight street in the whole region. They had to build the airport 20 miles out of town where it was flat enough to land a DC4 back in the day. It’s ice and snow, steep grades, intersections where 5 streets come together, narrow, 1900s built streets. Everything is lined with worn out brick or cement. No one would test drive a self driver in that environment.

Unless he knew that his product could handle the job. (I would have said “Had the calm confidence of a Christian holding 4 Aces” (Twain) but can’t make it work.)

Daughter who has lived in P’burg for 7 years is here with us, so we ask about the self drivers; Yep, she’s seen more than one. They exist, ugly, roof has a bubble so distinctive enough for it to be known if they fail somehow.

I’d guess that we’ll know that self drivers are viable, efficient, attractive and cheap enough to go commercial by next spring. How long before you can buy one, or before Uber orders a few 100,000 Priuses modified to self drive? another year? maybe 2? These 100,000 cars will replace a million personal cars in people’s garages and on the parking lots.

We on the commission had better think on this.

Some thoughts.

The cars likely will not be built in Michigan, or if they are, the mechanical parts will be mere commodities lacking attractive luxury pricing markups that would stimulate competition and creativity. Self drivers are computers and software with a metal attached.

Public transit in all it’s forms is doomed. Taxis and buses cannot compete with personalized pickup and delivery in a warm (or air conditioned in the summer) car. Passenger railroads (why do we support Amtrack? This company regularly kills and maims the elites in the NY to Washington corridor;  even as I write, there’s been death and over a hundred injured in Hoboken, NJ) and intercity buses will be replaced in their roles of moving people a few hundred miles to other cities or even to Florida in the winter. School buses, kaput.

Will parking lots, parking spaces on streets and the width of roads be affected? If so, what do we do with the extra space; more buildings next to the malls? Parks that never get used?

Will shopping for groceries, clothing and minor purchases be abolished since things can be ordered on the internet and then delivered cheaply when the resident is at home and ready to receive the goods. So what happens to malls, big box stores and strip centers? A warehouse full of dry goods and staffed by robots will no longer need to be located on our main streets.

Will plunging transportation costs encourage people to live further out in the country? I can’t think of any arguments that would support them wanting to live closer together, so scratch the New Urbanism and Smart Cities. That’s my opinion but maybe others can marshal opposite arguments.

Do good street lighting, traffic lights and signs mean much to a robot? No, but there will be many years before human drivers no longer struggle with steering wheels and brakes? How important will street maintenance and snow removal be in this pending storm of change?

The accidents that are reported for self drivers in Palo Alto, where these have been standard for years, are almost all caused by humans disobeying the law while the patient self drivers are scrupulous in heeding the law. The patrolling for- and punishing of speeders, drunks, and unlicensed drivers will disappear, so there go lucrative traffic fines, busybody drug courts and the fill in the hours work of lurking for speeders that police do. Also, we should anticipate fewer accidents with their fires and injuries that occupy the fire department.  Maybe we should cut budgets and recruitment.

The latest fad in policing is DDACTS, in which our police concentrate on known high crime areas looking for minor traffic violations and vehicle defects that serve as an excuse to “stop and frisk” the drivers without ruffling constitutional feathers. Gone. Those old Pontiac and Toyota beaters will be soon retired and the traffic in poorer areas will resemble that of the wealthiest suburbs. And all the self drivers will soon have traces of cocaine and marijuana detectable, just as it is on our US currency.

Will our fleet of cars, fire engines, plows, utility trucks self drive? Quite probably, to some extent so we’ll get some cost savings.

The folks who will first use self drivers are the old who are still living in their own home. They can more easily take care of themselves if they have the increased mobility, so forestall moving into retirement villages. So what happens to the explosive growth of these corporations that depend on a aging and dependent population?

I think that air traffic will be relatively spared, so our connection to Kent County’s airport will be an advantage.

Well the rain passed us by, a watery sunshine, temperature 78, moderate wind,  and I see an osprey hunting off shore.  Commission meeting next Tuesday, so gotta get back in the next few days. Life in retirement is hard but yo gotta do what ya gotta do..

Cops; Preventing Crime, or the Criminal Justice System? Seeing Miscreants through Crosshairs.

The commission will be presented with a proposal to allow the police to use a federal grant to put “scopes” on their AR 15s. (Bushmasters, were M16s in Vietnam and now changed only slightly and still used by our armed forces as M4s.) There is an additional proposal to replace pistols, for what purpose, I know not.

This use and appearance of military weapons in the hands of police makes me uncomfortable; the round from these weapons is an ultra-high velocity, 22+ caliper bit of metal. Its trajectory  tends to be erratic at distance and it bounces around off hard objects until it stops. It can kill at a half-mile and carries to nearly two miles. I don’t know how many homes in Kentwood a round will penetrate, but the second house down is a reasonable guess.

Also, why would one put scopes on these weapons? It allows them to be used at 400 yards out or even further. Where in our town is such a shot necessary or possible? Do we want snipers, whose only role is that of an executioner, in our town?

An ordinary shotgun loaded with slugs is effective out to 100 yards, the round flattens when it hits something and is extremely effective in keeping the peace.

Our police have acquired military hardware because some national policy was adopted after a mass shooting 20 years ago, They are gradually being trained in its use and philosophy of seeing others as enemies. But the police  business was envisioned to be preventing crime, of watching the societal scene and stepping in to apprehend criminals, not serving as the judge and jury for perceived transgressions. The insight that the police are our masters and not protectors is fostered by pictures of cops with tanks and body armor confronting rioters in Ferguson and other backwashes.

We in Kentwood should avoid these appearances; they could get us into serious trouble if some unanticipated social tinder is lit and the police sent to control the situation are filmed with murderous hardware in hand.

Sobriety, Academic Probity, and Why Don’t our Kentwood Cops Arrest these Prostitutes?

Sturgeon’s Revelation states that 90% of everything is crap, so I immediately detected odor (not the first whiff in the commission chambers that evening) when our highly respected city judge proposed that his Kentwood court host a sobriety court,  you know, the contrivances imposing substance-abuse interventions and treatment on defendants who plead guilty of driving while intoxicated or impaired.

Some background; I had served on the Grand Rapids Mayors Task Force on Drugs 15 years ago and researched the scientific literature. There was only one good clinical trial and it showed that even a well funded alcohol rehab trial was no better than threatening the miscreant with severe punishment if he were caught drunk again. Our judge cited some “case-control” studies (close to worthless, but convincing enough for the commission) to put me down. Some other political body would provide the $160k, and it was a partial return to Kentwood of taxes that would be sent elsewhere.  I voted “yes” with everyone else and he implemented the hustle. The judge was told that he should not expect ongoing funding from Kentwood when the 3 year grant ran out.

Not content with the status quo, the judge recently sent out a widely noised study funded by “The Michigan Association of Treatment Court Professionals” which touted the Ignition Interlock Systems that detect alcohol on the breath of drunks and prevents them from starting their cars. He misinterpreted it as showing the effectiveness of sobriety courts. The actual research focused only on Interlocks, commercial products imposed on clients in sobriety courts as allegedly diminishing recidivism as well as other crimes. The authors, trying to bolster their argument, included not just one but two comparison groups, one from a sobriety court and the other from a court using traditional probationers. On page 40, you’ll notice that there is scarce difference in alcohol recidivism between these two groups at 1,2, and at 3 years.

My point is not especially that sobriety courts are useless (although they are.) The main researcher, (a professor from GVSU, my old haunt) was doing marketing work on Interlocks, a series of commercial products. He never gave the data comparing sobriety courts with standard probationers’ courts a second glance; it supported his objective on Interlocks, so he innocently reported raw data on sobriety courts. His job was to “Evaluate Interlocks. What are these sobriety courts?” Like many social science “studies” that get reported, this one showed a favorable result for Interlocks, just like previous studies that compared standard probationers courts to sobriety courts showed the superiority of the latter.

This study illustrates the degradation of enquiry in colleges and universities; most of what the social sciences investigate is thinly disguised marketing research done to please someone in business, the press or for our purposes, government. Tools used to investigate human affairs, surveys, experiments with students as subjects, retrospective looks at large data bases and the like, always require investigator interpretation on input variables, what criteria and tools to use in analysis and what studies to report. Negative studies never get reported. Publicity always gets a better deal than integrity, and a researcher who finds unfavorable answers, even once, loses funding.

Social science researchers tout their probity in the daylight. At night and in the dim lights of academic offices, the prostitutes want their money.