United States

The Ordinary Engineering Behind the Horrifying Florida Bridge Collapse (wired.com) 150

An anonymous reader quotes a report from WIRED: The people of Sweetwater, Florida were supposed to wait until early 2019 for the Florida International University-Sweetwater University City Bridge to open. Instead, they will wait about that long for an official assessment from the National Transportation Safety Board of why it collapsed just five days after its installation, killing at least six people. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, many queries have centered on the unconventional technique used to build the bridge, something called Accelerated Bridge Construction, or ABC. But ABC is more complicated than its acronym suggests -- and it's hardly brand new. ABC refers to dozens of construction methods, but at its core, it's about drastically reducing on-site construction time. Mostly, that relies on pre-fabricating things like concrete decks, abutments, walls, barriers, and concrete topped steel girders, and hauling them to the work site. There, cranes or specialized vehicles known as Self-Propelled Modular Transporter install them. A video posted online by Florida International University, which helped fund the bridge connects to its campus, showed an SPMT lifting and then lowering the span into place.

In a now-deleted press release, the university called the "largest pedestrian bridge moved via SPMT in U.S. history," but that doesn't seem to mean much, engineering-wise. SPMTs have been around since the 1970s, and have moved much heavier loads. In 2017, workers used a 600-axle SPMT to salvage the 17,000 ton ferry that sank off the coast of South Korea in 2014. The ABC technique is much more expensive than building things in place, but cities and places like FIU like it for a specific reason: Because most of the work happens far away, traffic goes mostly unperturbed. When years- or months-long construction projects can have serious effects on businesses and homes, governments might make up the money in the long run. Workers installed this collapsed span in just a few hours. These accelerated techniques are also much safer for workers, who do most their work well away from active roads.
The report goes on to note that the bridge collapse is still under investigation and the search for a culprit is ongoing. "The answers could run the gamut, from design flaws to fabrication flubs to installation issues," reports WIRED. As of publication, The Washington Post is reporting that an engineer called the state to report cracking two days before its collapse.

Ford's Badly Needed Plan To Catch Up On Hybrid, Electric Cars (arstechnica.com) 122

Ford supposedly has a plan to adapt to the changing world of transportation. The company recently announced that it's "going all-in on hybrids," readying six new battery electric vehicles by 2022, with the first due in 2020, and adding more performance versions of its SUV line up. "Additionally, by the end of 2019, every new Ford will have 4G LTE connectivity, and the company is developing a new cloud platform that will deliver over-the-air updates," reports Ars Technica. From the report: New hybrids: "Hybrids for years have been mostly niche products but are now on the cusp of a mainstream breakout," said Jim Farley, Ford president of global markets. "The valuable capability they offer -- plus fuel efficiency -- is why we're going to offer hybrid variants of our most popular and high-volume vehicles, allowing our loyal, passionate customers to become advocates for the technology." So America's best-selling truck (the F-150) will get the ability to act as a mobile generator, something that should come in handy on job sites. Meanwhile, the Mustang will have performance to match the 5.0L V8 version but with more low-down torque, according to Ford. The company says that these new hybrids will be cheaper and more efficient than its current hybrids, via "common cell and component design and by manufacturing motors, transmissions, and battery packs."

New BEVs: We have to wait for those new BEVs, too. The first of these -- an electric performance SUV -- also shows up in 2020, but with five more planned between then and 2022. Ford says that it's "rethinking the ownership experience" as part of this and that over-the-air software updates to add new features will be part of the $11 billion investment plan.

More SUVs, more commercial vehicles, a super Mustang: Other new vehicles on the way include a reborn Ford Bronco SUV and an as-yet unnamed small SUV, but before then we'll get redesigned Explorers and Escapes, due in 2019. Next year, Ford will also bring a new Transit van to the US, and it says advanced driver-assistance systems, like automatic emergency braking and others, will be added to future commercial vehicles like the future E-Series, F-650, F-750, and F59-based vehicles.


Facial Scanning Now Arriving At US Airports (npr.org) 69

According to a report via NPR, a Geneva-based company called SITA that develops information technology for the world's airlines has installed facial scanning cameras at Orlando International Airport. "Britain-bound passengers -- some wearing Mickey Mouse T-shirts and other Disney paraphernalia -- lined up at Gate 80 recently for the evening British Airways flight to London's Gatwick Airport," reports NPR. "It looks like any other airport departure area, except for the two small gates with what look like small boxes on posts next to them. Those boxes are actually cameras." From the report: Sherry Stein, a senior manager at SITA, says the cameras are triggered when passengers step onto designated footprints. "We collect a photo, send it to CBP, who checks to make sure that person is booked on the manifest and matches the photo that they already have on file." If everything matches, Stein says, "we open the doors and give them the OK to board." All that happens, she says, "in three to five seconds." If things don't match, the traveler's passport is scanned manually by a gate agent. CBP is testing biometric scanning at a dozen or so U.S. international airports to ensure that people leaving the country are who they say they are, and to prevent visa overstays. The Transportation Security Administration, another agency within the Department of Homeland Security, is testing similar devices at security check-in lines.
The Courts

Man Fined For Implanting NFC Train Ticket In Hand (cnet.com) 97

Unhappy Windows User writes: An Australian man, when checked by a ticket inspector, claimed his smart travel card was implanted in his hand. He took the case to court and lost; the fine and legal fees add up to AU$1220 (USD $950). The man, who self-identifies as a biohacker and is a member of the Science Party, accepts the ruling but states that it won't discourage him from further biohacking. He claimed he was ahead of the law. The prosecution argued that, by cutting the chip out of the card, the ticket was invalidated. It is not clear from the article whether the NFC chip was working correctly and could be read by the inspector, or not. Further reading: BuzzFeed News

Tesla Employees Say Automaker Is Churning Out a High Volume of Flawed Parts (cnbc.com) 149

Several current and former employees of Tesla said that the automaker is manufacturing a surprisingly high ratio of flawed parts and vehicles, leading to more rework and repairs than can be contained at its factory in Fremont, California. CNBC reports: One current Tesla engineer estimated that 40 percent of the parts made or received at its Fremont factory require rework. The need for reviews of parts coming off the line, and rework, has contributed to Model 3 delays, the engineer said. Another current employee from Tesla's Fremont factory said the company's defect rate is so high that it's hard to hit production targets. Inability to hit the numbers is in turn hurting employee morale. To deal with a backlog of flawed parts and vehicles, said these current and former employees, Tesla has brought in teams of technicians and engineers from its service centers and remanufacturing lines to help with rework and repairs on site in Fremont. They also said that sometimes the luxury EV maker has taken the unusual measure of sending flawed or damaged parts from Fremont to its remanufacturing facility in Lathrop, California, about 50 miles away, instead of fixing those parts "in-line." Tesla flatly denies that its remanufacturing teams engage in rework. "Our remanufacturing team does not 'rework' cars," a spokesperson said. The company said the employees might be conflating rework and remanufacturing. It also said every vehicle is subjected to rigorous quality control involving more than 500 inspections and tests. The report from CNBC has caused Tesla's stock to tumble today. You can read Tesla's full statement about the CNBC report here.

New York's Subway Is Slow Because They Slowed Down the Trains After A 1995 Accident 152

According to the Village Voice, New York City's subway trains are running slower because the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is deliberately running the trains slower. The Village Voice obtained MTA internal documents, discovering that the decision to run the trains slower was made following a fatal 1995 crash on the Williamsburg Bridge. From the report: The subway's performance has been steadily deteriorating for many years. The authority's own internal data shows that delays due to "incidents," such as broken signals and tracks or water damage, have only marginally increased since 2012. But there is one type of delay that's gotten exponentially worse during that time: a catchall category blandly titled "insufficient capacity, excess dwell, unknown," which captures every delay without an obvious cause. From January 2012 to December 2017, these delays increased by a whopping 1,190 percent -- from 105 per weekday to 1,355. In December, one out of every six trains run across the entire system experienced such a delay. The increase has been steady and uninterrupted over the past six years.
In 1995, a Manhattan-bound J train crossing the Williamsburg Bridge rear-ended an M train that was stopped on the bridge, killing the J train operator and injuring more than fifty passengers. The National Transportation and Safety Board investigation placed most of the blame on the J train operator, who the NTSB suspected had been asleep. But the NTSB also identified potential issues with the signal system that contributed to the accident, which it found didn't guarantee train operators enough time to apply the emergency brakes even when awake. "They slowed the trains down after the Williamsburg Bridge crash," a veteran train operator who asked not to be identified told the Village Voice. "The MTA said the train was going too fast for the signal system." As a result, the MTA, quite literally, slowed all the trains down, issuing a bulletin informing employees in April 1996 that their propulsion systems would be modified so they could achieve a maximum speed of 40 miles per hour, down from the previous high of 50 to 55 miles per hour on a flat grade. But the MTA didn't stop there, internal documents show. One of the NTSB's safety recommendations was to set speed limits. As a result, the MTA began a still-ongoing process of changing the way many signals work to meet modern safety standards.

A Chatbot Can Now Offer You Protection Against Volatile Airline Prices (theverge.com) 24

The same bot, DoNotPay, that helped users overturn parking tickets and sue Equifax for small sums of money is now offering you protection against volatile airline prices. The Verge reports: Joshua Browder, a junior at Stanford University, designed the new service on the bot in a few months, after experiencing rapidly fluctuating airline prices when flying to California during the wildfires last year. "It annoyed me that every single flight, I could be paying sometimes double or even triple the person next to me in the same type of seat," he told The Verge. Browder first used the service himself and then tested it among his friends in a closed beta. He claims that the average amount saved among the beta testers is $450 a year, though it's not clear how many flights were booked and how much they cost. The service is available to the public starting today. To use it, log in with a Google account, input your phone number, birthday, and credit card information through Stripe. (Browder swears the credit card information won't be stored.) Then the chatbot tells you you're all set. Now, every time you buy airline tickets, whether from an airline's site or a third party, the chatbot will help make sure you pay the lowest price for your class and seat.

Larry Page's Flying Taxis, Now Exiting Stealth Mode (nytimes.com) 100

Google co-founder and Alphabet CEO Larry Page's autonomous flying taxi company Kitty Hawk on Tuesday unveiled its "fully electric, self-piloting flying taxi" called Cora. Since October, Cora has been seen moving through the skies over the South Island of New Zealand. It looks like a cross between a small plane and a drone, with a series of small rotor blades along each wing that allow it to take off like a helicopter and then fly like a plane. The New York Times reports: Now that project is about to go public: On Tuesday, Mr. Page's company and the prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, will announce they have reached an agreement to test Kitty Hawk's autonomous planes as part of an official certification process. The hope is that it will lead to a commercial network of flying taxis in New Zealand in as soon as three years. The move is a big step forward in the commercialization of this technology, which even the most optimistic prognosticators had recently bet would take another decade to achieve. The decision to embrace the commercial use of flying taxis offers New Zealand an opportunity to leapfrog many developed countries in this area, and perhaps give it a head start over Silicon Valley, where much of the most innovative work has been taking place.

Lyft Says Its Revenue Is Growing Nearly 3x Faster Than Uber's (techcrunch.com) 53

U.S. ride-sharing company Lyft says it passed $1 billion in revenue last year and that its revenue grew 168 percent year over year in the fourth quarter of 2017, almost three times faster than Uber's reported 61 percent growth. "Uber, of course, is still much larger than Lyft -- it generated a reported $7.5 billion in revenue last year and operates in many more cities and countries," notes Recode. "While its fourth-quarter growth may have been smaller than Lyft's percentage-wise, it was still almost certainly many times larger dollar-wise. Both companies are still unprofitable." From the report: But the big-picture reality is that despite Uber's head start, its early dominance, ability to raise massive amounts of financing, aggressive (often allegedly illegal) growth tactics, faster move into self-driving cars and everything else in its favor, it has not been able to destroy Lyft. Instead, Lyft capitalized somewhat on Uber's missteps and unsavory reputation, raised another $2 billion last year, gained market share, launched its first international market last year (Toronto) and seems poised to exist for the foreseeable future.

ACLU Sues TSA Over Electronic Device Searches (techcrunch.com) 115

The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California has filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Transportation Security Administration over its alleged practices of searching the electronic devices of passengers traveling on domestic flights. "The federal government's policies on searching the phones, laptops, and tablets of domestic air passengers remain shrouded in secrecy," ACLU Foundation of Northern California attorney Vasudha Talla said in a blog post. "TSA is searching the electronic devices of domestic passengers, but without offering any reason for the search," Talla added. "We don't know why the government is singling out some passengers, and we don't know what exactly TSA is searching on the devices. Our phones and laptops contain very personal information, and the federal government should not be digging through our digital data without a warrant." TechCrunch reports: The lawsuit, which is directed toward the TSA field offices in San Francisco and its headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, specifically asks the TSA to hand over records related to its policies, procedures and/or protocols pertaining to the search of electronic devices. This lawsuit comes after a number of reports came in pertaining to the searches of electronic devices of passengers traveling domestically. The ACLU also wants to know what equipment the TSA uses to search, examine and extract any data from passengers' devices, as well as what kind of training TSA officers receive around screening and searching the devices. The ACLU says it first filed FOIA requests back in December, but TSA "subsequently improperly withheld the requested records," the ACLU wrote in a blog post today.

Tesla Raises Prices At Its Supercharger Stations 166

Tesla is increasing the cost of the paid Supercharger access, but a spokesperson for the company says that it "will never be a profit center." Electrek reports: When introducing the program, Tesla said that it aimed to still make the cost of Supercharging cheaper than gasoline and that it doesn't aim to make its Supercharger network a profit center. Instead, they want to use the money to keep growing the network which now consists of over 1,180 stations and close to 9,000 Superchargers. But this week, the rates were updated across the U.S. Some states saw massive increases of as much as 100 percent -- though most regions saw their rates increase by 20 to 40 percent. For example, Oregon saw an increase of $0.12 to $0.24 per kWh, while California, Tesla's biggest market in the U.S., got an increase from $0.20 to $0.26 kWh and New York's rate went from $0.19 to $0.24 per kWh. A spokesperson for Tesla said in a statement: "We occasionally adjust rates to reflect current local electricity and usage. The overriding principle is that Supercharging will always remain significantly cheaper than gasoline, as we only aim to recover a portion of our costs while setting up a fair system for everyone. This will never be a profit center for Tesla."

Coming Soon to a Front Porch Near You: Package Delivery Via Drone (wsj.com) 110

After lagging behind other countries for years, commercial drones in the U.S. are expected to begin limited package deliveries within months, according to federal regulators and industry officials. [Editor's note: the link may be paywalled; an alternative source was not immediately available] From a report: The momentum partly stems from stepped-up White House pressure, prompting closer cooperation between the government and companies such as Amazon.com seeking authorizations for such fledgling businesses. The upshot, according to these officials, is newfound confidence by both sides that domestic package-delivery services finally appear on the verge of taking off. Earlier promises of progress turned out to be premature. The green light could be delayed again if proponents can't overcome nagging security concerns on the part of local or national law-enforcement agencies. Proposed projects also may end up stymied if Federal Aviation Administration managers don't find creative ways around legislative and regulatory restrictions such as those mandating pilot training for manned aircraft. But some proponents of delivery and other drone applications "think they might be ready to operate this summer," Jay Merkle, a senior FAA air-traffic control official, said during a break at an unmanned-aircraft conference in Baltimore last week that highlighted the agency's pro-business approach.

SXSW: No 'Hot Apps' Anymore But Still a Launchpad For Some Startups (axios.com) 28

South by Southwest is no longer the preferred launchpad for social apps, but it may be for others like Blue Duck, a San Antonio-based transportation company debuting its scooter service this weekend. From a report: Between Twitter's big breakout moment in 2007 and Meerkat's in 2015, SXSW has served as a great marketing opportunity for social apps. But that's ended as consumer trends have shifted and Hollywood and other consumer companies have taken over the festival. Standing outside the Austin Convention Center, co-founder Eric Bell tells me that he came up with the idea out of frustration with his local public transit, and he designed the scooters. For now, the company is self-funded, but he expects to soon raise outside funding.

Elon Musk Changes 'Boring Company' Vision To Reward Cyclists and Pedestrians (techcrunch.com) 152

"Remember Elon Musk's plan to dig a massive web of traffic-beating tunnels underneath Los Angeles...?" asks CNN. "Now, that plan appears to be getting a huge makeover." An anonymous reader quotes TechCrunch: While it will still focus on digging tunnels to provide a network of underground tubes suitable for use by high-speed Hyperloop pods, the plan now is to use that Hyperloop to transport pedestrians and cyclists first, and then only later to work on moving cars around underground to bypass traffic. Musk shared the update via Twitter, noting that the idea would be to load customers onto cars roughly the size that a single parking space takes up currently, [thousands of which] would be dotted around an urban environment close to any destinations where someone might travel. The single-car station model would be designed to replace the current subway-style model, Musk said, where only a few small stations are very spread out... This is a big departure from the original vision, and it seems like one that might have evolved after Musk and his collaborators on the project spoke to urban planners and transit authorities.
"If someone can't afford a car, they should go first," Musk posted on Twitter, sharing a new conceptual video where an elevator lowers one of these pedestrian- and cyclist-focussed shuttle pods underground.

TechCrunch says this new vision "would be appealing both to urban officials looking to decrease congestion on downtown roads and discourage personal vehicle use, and to anyone hoping to increase access to affordable transit options."

California Bullet Train Costs Soar To $77.3 Billion, Will Take 5 Years Longer To Complete 269

The California High-Speed Rail Authority announced today that the cost of connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco would total $77.3 billion, an increase of $13 billion from estimates two years ago, and could potentially rise as high as $98.1 billion. They also said the earliest trains could operate on a partial system between San Jose and the farming town of Wasco would be 2029, five years later than the previous projection. Los Angeles Times reports: The disclosures are contained in a 114-page business plan that was issued in draft form by the rail authority and will be finalized this summer in a submission to the Legislature. The rail authority has wrestled with a more than $40-billion funding gap, which would increase sharply under the new cost estimates. The biggest immediate driver of the cost increase has been in the Central Valley, where the rail authority is building 119 miles of track between Wasco and Merced. The authority disclosed in early February that the cost of that work would jump to $10.6 billion from an original estimate of about $6 billion. Roy Hill, one of the senior consultants advising the state, told the rail authority board, "The worst-case scenario has happened." In its 2014 business plan, the rail authority optimistically projected that it could begin carrying passengers in just seven years. But the warning signs of uncontrolled cost growth had already started mounting then, even though until this year the rail authority has vehemently denied that it was facing a problem. The project began having trouble buying property for the route almost immediately after it issued its first construction contract in 2013.

Elon Musk Sides With Trump On Trade With China, Citing 25 Percent Import Duty On American Cars (cnbc.com) 330

Elon Musk believes China isn't playing fair in the car trade with the U.S. since it puts a 25 percent import duty on American cars, while the U.S. only does 2.5 percent for Chinese cars. "I am against import duties in general, but the current rules make things very difficult," Musk tweeted. "It's like competing in an Olympic race wearing lead shoes." CNBC reports: Tesla's Elon Musk is complaining to President Donald Trump about China's car tariffs. "Do you think the US & China should have equal & fair rules for cars? Meaning, same import duties, ownership constraints & other factors," Musk said on Twitter in response to a Trump tweet about trade with China. He added that no American car company is "allowed to own even 50% of their own factory" in the Asian country, but China's auto firms can own their companies in the U.S. Trump responded to Musk's tweets later at his steel and aluminum tariff press conference Thursday. "We are going to be doing a reciprocal tax program at some point, so that if China is going to charge us 25% or if India is going to charge us 75% and we charge them nothing ... We're going to be at those same numbers. It's called reciprocal, a mirror tax," Trump said after reading Musk's earlier tweets out loud.

Bay Area Cities Consider Rideshare Tax On Uber, Lyft (arstechnica.com) 92

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Ars Technica: A local city council member is beginning to float the idea of taxing ridehailing companies like Uber and Lyft as a possible way to raise millions of dollars and help pay for local public transportation and infrastructure improvements. If the effort is successful, Oakland could become the first city in California -- Uber and Lyft's home state -- to impose such a tax. However, it's not clear whether Oakland or any other city in the Golden State has the authority to do so under current state rules. Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan told the East Bay Express that she wants the city council to put forward a ballot measure that would tax such rides. A similar proposal in nearby San Francisco, projecting a fee of $0.20 to $1 per ride, would allow the city to collect an estimated $12.5 to $62.5 million annually. However, an October 2017 city analysis noted that San Francisco "cannot initiate locally without state authorizing legislation" and that the fee "may disproportionately impact lower-income households."
United States

What Airbnb Did To New York City (citylab.com) 333

An anonymous reader shares a report: There are two kinds of horror stories about Airbnb. When the home-sharing platform first appeared, the initial cautionary tales tended to emphasize extreme guest (and occasionally host) misbehavior. But as the now decade-old service matured and the number of rental properties proliferated dramatically, a second genre emerged, one that focused on what the service was doing to the larger community: Airbnb was raising rents and taking housing off the rental market. It was supercharging gentrification while discriminating against guests and hosts of color. And as commercial operators took over, it was transforming from a way to help homeowners occasionally rent out an extra room into a purveyor of creepy, makeshift hotels.

Several studies have looked into these claims; some focused on just one issue at a time, or measured Airbnb-linked trends across wide swaths of the country. But a recent report by David Wachsmuth, a professor of Urban Planning at McGill University, zeroes in on New York City in an effort to answer the question of exactly what home sharing is doing to the city. [...] Their conclusion: Most of those rumors are true. Wachsmuth found reason to believe that Airbnb has indeed raised rents, removed housing from the rental market, and fueled gentrification -- at least in New York City. "


Self-Driving Cars Are Being Attacked By Angry Californians (theguardian.com) 350

According to incident reports collected by the California department of motor vehicles, some Californians are purposely colliding with self-driving cars. The Guardian reports: On January 10, a pedestrian in San Francisco's Mission District ran across the street to confront a GM Cruise autonomous vehicle that was waiting for people to cross the road, according to an incident report filed by the car company. The pedestrian was "shouting," the report states, and "struck the left side of the Cruise AV's rear bumper and hatch with his entire body." No injuries occurred, but the car's left tail light was damaged. In a separate incident just a few blocks away on January 28, a taxi driver in San Francisco got out of his car, approached a GM Cruise autonomous vehicle and "slapped the front passenger window, causing a scratch." The police were not called in either case.

Mercedes' Futuristic Headlights Shine Warning Symbols On the Road (gizmodo.com) 139

In its new high-end vehicles, Daimler says it will introduce programmable, "million-pixel" headlights that project warning symbols and driving tips on the road. "The technology, which Daimler calls Digital Light, was demoed as a concept ten years ago, but at the Geneva Motor Show it's finally being introduced as a feature that's 'expected' to be available on certain Mercedes-Maybach S-Class vehicles sometime this year," reports Gizmodo. From the report: Sitting alongside the vehicle's standard headlights are a pair of small monochrome projectors that each feature "a resolution of over one million pixels," Daimler claims, resulting in an "HD-quality" image being projected onto the road surface ahead of the vehicle. Using data from the car's onboard sensors, as well as traffic and obstacle data that GPS devices rely on, the headlights project symbols like a snowflake indicating slippery conditions ahead, a construction symbol reminding drivers to slow down for road workers, arrows for where to turn, and even simple white lines representing the size of your vehicle so you can immediately tell if you're able to squeeze into a narrow parking spot. The ability to selectively switch off pixels means the S-Class' headlights could help drivers avoid blinding oncoming vehicles or pedestrians, as onboard sensors detect faces and windshields and automatically dim the brightness in those areas.

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