Proposed: self-driving cars need to have drivers at the wheel

California is proposing that self-driving cars take their time in becoming self-driving:

The approach California’s Department of Motor Vehicles offered Wednesday in precedent-setting draft regulations is cautious, though it does allow that Californians could be behind the wheel of a self-driving car by 2017.

Among other safety-related requirements, the cars must have a steering wheel, and a licensed driver must be ready to take over if the machine fails…

Before the DMV grants that three-year permit, an independent certifier would need to verify a manufacturer’s safety assurances. Google and traditional automakers advocated for manufacturer self-certification of safety, the standard for other cars.Drivers would need special, manufacturer-provided training, then get a special certification on their licenses. If a car breaks the law, the driver would be responsible.

This is not too surprising given the newness of the technology as well as the potential safety hazards for others on the road. I don’t think any body of government wants to be responsible if the self-driving technology fails and someone is hurt or dies.

At the same time, this article introduces a new wrinkle to the development of this technology: if companies think these regulations are too onerous, why not develop the cars elsewhere? The suggestion here is that Texas might emerge as another option. Could it be better for consumers and innovation if two states work with different regulations and different companies?

Today’s cars with more 100 million lines of code

Driverless cars will only compound this issue: the increasingly complex programming for cars.

New high-end cars are among the most sophisticated machines on the planet, containing 100 million or more lines of code. Compare that with about 60 million lines of code in all of Facebook or 50 million in the Large Hadron Collider.

“Cars these days are reaching biological levels of complexity,” said Chris Gerdes, a professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University.

The sophistication of new cars brings numerous benefits — forward-collision warning systems and automatic emergency braking that keep drivers safer are just two examples. But with new technology comes new risks — and new opportunities for malevolence.

The article then goes on to discuss two issues: hacking this complex software and regulating it (with the recent VW case serving as a good example). I’d rather the article goes three different directions rather than just highlight what could go wrong:

  1. How exactly do car makers and programmers make sure this all works together? How many people are involved in this? Who coordinates it all? Just putting this all together is quite a task.
  2. Say more about the complexity compared to other items. Based on what was said here, it sounds like this is the most complex mechanical object the typical person interacts with.
  3. The move to driverless cars may just only up the ante. Or, can some of this be reduced if you start with no driver and a fully autonomous system? New codes can tend to simply be built on top of older codes as pieces change but starting anew may make things easier.

Frankly, much of our lives these days is dependent on complex and/or long computer codes. If all that knowledge suddenly disappeared for some reason (perhaps an interesting starting point for a sci fi story), we would have some problems.

How the ADA changed architecture

The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 had a profound effect on architecture and design:

The Americans with Disabilities Act created a comprehensive civil rights approach to accessibility at the federal level. Before its passage, architects worked under a varying system of state and local buildings codes that governed design requirements. Federal laws that were precursors to the ADA, such as the 1968 Architectural Barriers Act, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (especially section 504) and the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, mandated better access. But since they only applied to federal properties, those built with federal money, or housing programs funded by federal sources, they didn’t address varying codes for other structures, and had no impact on privately owned buildings. People with disabilities still had to navigate on unstable terrain, legally speaking. Wright told lawmakers the patchwork of protection was akin to a “piece of Swiss cheese” spread across the country…

The battle for passage, which foreshadowed many of the issues surrounding its implementation and eventual effectiveness, boiled down to three main issues, according to Wright: civil rights, an implicit part of the debate; architects’ desire to have freedom in their choice of designs; and the cost of retrofitting buildings. While architects eventually accepted the changes as another set of guidelines, like a code change, every section of the bill encountered different forms of corporate resistance. During debates over transportation, for instance, Greyhound complained about the cost of retrofitting buses and rebuilding all their stations. During months of negotiations, Wright was assisted by her “right-hand man” Ron Mace, an architect and designer with Barrier-Free Environments, who used a wheelchair due to polio. He continually gave her facts and figures on the costs of different alternatives and upgrades, helping to assuage fears and correct inflated cost estimates from the opposition…

At first, architects greeted the ADA as just another code change, according to many in the field. Patrick Burke, a principal at Michael Graves Architecture & Design who started there in the ’70s, admits that his colleagues at the time rarely thought about people with wheelchairs. But a few years after the ADA was introduced, it quickly became “part of design DNA.” While sustainability often provided a quantifiable, monetary impact, accessibility, which almost always requires a bigger building and more money, is just the right thing to do…

“It’s changed the way we enter buildings, and the way we design for monumentality,” says Steinfeld. “The ADA has created a new way of thinking, a much more convenient, egalitarian approach. It’s no longer like the days of imperial Rome and England, with the elite of society standing up on the second floor, watching the peons go by below.”

The suggestion here is that addressing accessibility led to more open, flowing, lighter designs that all people could benefit from. While the legislation may have been aimed at helping a specific group, the benefits can be shared by all. Think about the trend of having first floor master bedrooms in houses; they may have benefits for those with mobility concerns or allowing the homeowners to stay longer since they don’t have to travel up or down stairs as much but such a layout could have other benefits such as a more private space away from the other bedrooms and having closer access to the main living spaces.

On the other hand, I wonder if the normal person has noticed these changes in public places beyond seeing a ramp here or there. Many people don’t have to think about accessibility issues. Granted, it may be our often lack of attention to architecture and design in our daily lives and the inability to read/understand this architecture that is more of an issue. Yet, I suspect this is still a hidden issue.

Realtors argue their guild needs more professionalization

Real estate is an important part of the American economy but a recent report from the National Association of Realtors suggests realtors need more training:

In an unusual move for a major American trade association, the million-member National Association of Realtors has commissioned and released a frank and sometimes searing assessment of top challenges facing its industry for the next several years. The critiques hit everything from the professionalism and training of agents to the commissions charged consumers, and even the association’s ?leadership.

-“The real estate industry is saddled with a large number of part-time, untrained, unethical and/or incompetent agents. This knowledge gap threatens the credibility of the industry.” Ouch!

-Low entry requirements for agents are a key problem. While other professionals often must undergo extensive education and training for thousands of hours or multiple years, realty agents need only complete 70 hours on average to qualify for licenses to sell homes, with the lowest state requirement for licensing at just 13 hours. Cosmetologists, by contrast, average 372 hours of training, according to the report.

-Professional, hard-working agents across the country “increasingly understand that the ‘not-so-good’ agents are bringing the entire industry down.” Yet there “are no meaningful educational initiatives on the table to raise the national bar …”


This is a good example of maintaining professional standards, a key activity of many business associations. (For an award-winning sociological read on trade associations and a book for which I did a small amount of research work, see Solidarity in Strategy: Making Business Meaningful in American Trade Associations.) Keeping track of the actions of thousands of members is a difficult task. The NAR has the ability to bestow the name REALTOR®. Upping the standards with harder tests and stricter requirements has been done by lots of groups in order to improve their status.

But, this might also have some negative consequences:

1. Might it encourage more people to bypass realtors all together? This is easier than ever with the Internet.

2. If I remember correctly, the average age of realtors has increased in recent years. Might this simply increase that?

3. Might this issue be solved in other ways like if realtors worked within agencies that stressed standards or through mentoring programs that offer benefits for both parties?

4. Do realtors want more regulatory oversight like other groups – such as cosmetologists? This may help up their status but could lead to more hoops to jump through.

A tale of two teardown McMansions in Miami and the guidelines that might follow

The Guardian contrasts the teardown fate of two Miami homes and discusses how preservationists want to set new guidelines:

City of Miami Beach figures show that from 2005 to 2011, only 20 requests for the demolition and reconstruction of architecturally significant pre-1942 homes were submitted; another 20 more came in for the calendar year 2012; and from January to October 2013, the latest period for which figures are available, a further 40 applications were received.

James Murphy, principal planner for the municipality, described the trend towards development as “off the chain” and said that the city’s Design Review Board, the ultimate authority in decisions of destruction versus preservation, was trying to keep up…

The preservationists, meanwhile, have been here before. The Miami Design Preservation League, which fought and won a battle in the late 1970s to save the curvy art deco facades of Miami Beach hotels and condominium blocks, is eyeing a way to convert what it claims to be a groundswell of support over the Hochstein villa into new legislation.

It is discussing with city commissioners a proposal that would require any application involving a property more than 50 years old to automatically go through a formal review process before demolition could be approved.

The two stories presented are interesting ones. The first involves a wealthy owner moving an older house on the property and restoring it. The second involves a wealthy owner finding an older house with lots of problems, leading to its demolition and the construction of a 20,000 square foot home. Should both cases be subject to the same rules? Presumably, preservationists would develop a whole set of guidelines that would dictate when owners could and could not make changes but I do wonder if they would prefer that no old homes are demolished for any reason.

Side note: here is the definition of a McMansion in the article.

Already going up in its place is a 20,000 sq ft waterfront palace, complete with an enormous games room, walk-in wine cellar and 17-seat cinema. Such oversized homes, frequently occupied only by successful professional couples or their small families, have become known as McMansions.

The luxuriousness of the home may lean toward a McMansion but (1) the size is simply too big (this is a mass-produced tract home) and (2) it is relatively rare to discuss what kind of family structure is present in a McMansion.

Why do more liberal cities have more expensive housing?

After providing evidence that more liberal American cities have higher-priced housing, several explanations are offered for the phenomenon:

Kolko’s theory isn’t an outlier. There is a deep literature tying liberal residents to illiberal housing policies that create affordability crunches for the middle class. In 2010, UCLA economist Matthew Kahn published a study of California cities, which found that liberal metros issued fewer new housing permits. The correlation held over time: As California cities became more liberal, he said, they built fewer homes….

“All homeowners have an incentive to stop new housing,” Kahn told me, “because if developers build too many homes, prices fall, and housing is many families’ main asset. But in cities with many Democrats and Green Party members, environmental concerns might also be a factor. The movement might be too eager to preserve the past.”

The deeper you look, the more complex the relationship between blue cities and unaffordable housing becomes. In 2008, economist Albert Saiz used satellite-generated maps to show that the most regulated housing markets tend to have geographical constraints—that is, they are built along sloping mountains, in narrow peninsulas, and against nature’s least developable real estate: the ocean. (By comparison, many conservative cities, particularly in Texas, are surrounded by flatter land.) “Democratic, high-tax metropolitan areas… tend to constrain new development more,” Saiz concluded, and “historic areas seem to be more regulated.” He also found that cities with high home values tend to have more restrictive development policies…

“Developers pursue their own self-interest,” Kahn said. “If a developer has an acre, and he thinks it should be a shopping mall, he won’t think about neighborhood charm, or historic continuity. Liberals might say that the developer acting in his own self-interest ignores certain externalities, and they’ll apply restrictions. But these restrictions [e.g. historic preservation, environmental preservation, and height ceilings] add up, across a city, even if they’re well-intentioned. The affordability issue will rear its head.”

The options presented above include: (1) fewer housing permits; (2) environmental concerns; certain geographies that limit space, particularly along coastlines; (4) high taxes and high home values and (5) generally having more restrictions. Even though these factors are likely intertwined, it seems like it would be possible to look at the individual effects even when controlling for the other factors. One issue may be the relatively small sample size as such analyses are often limited to the 100 largest metropolitan areas. Even within the 100 biggest cities, there could be very different processes at work as Boise, Richmond, and San Bernadino are #98-100.

One common theme of these findings – outside of the geography argument – involves regulation and restrictions. Regulation doesn’t necessarily have to lead to less affordable housing. Regulations could also be used to push developers to include some units of affordable housing. Yet, it is hard for communities to turn down the big real estate money that can flow in; just see the recent happenings in New York City where high-priced units are still being built at a furious pace.

US government behind in regulating automated features for cars

As car makers pursue new technologies including driverless cars, the US government is struggling to keep up with the changes:

While truly self-driving cars are years away—if they ever arrive—consumers are seeing far more car models bearing sophisticated semi-autonomous features. These include radar assisted cruise-control, which can keep a fixed distance from the car ahead; systems that warn drivers if they veer out of their lanes; and technologies that can prevent oversteering or even apply the brakes when they detect that a crash is imminent (see “Self-Driving Tech Veers into Mid-Range Cars” and “Proceed With Caution Toward the Self-Driving Car”)…

With three states and the District of Columbia having passed legislation to allow researchers to test such prototypes on real roads, Washington is grappling with how to regulate the cars. John Capp, the director of active safety systems for General Motors, says federal regulators are “trying to understand these things and trying to figure out what role they should have.”…

Unsurprisingly, NHTSA’s statement said that fully autonomous technology isn’t ready for the general public. But the fact that the agency is calling for more study is a reminder of the glacial pace of regulation: in the case of lane-departure warnings and crash-avoidance systems, it’s studying technologies that have already been on the market for several years.

See my post last week on the NHSTA statement. More broadly, this raises interesting questions about technology and the ability of regulators to keep up. For those who want to push technology forward, how much in terms of time, convenience, and dollars is lost if the government slows down the process? At the same time, how much regulation is needed to help protect the public? There is likely some sort of sweet spot when the government has time to declare technology safe and inventors and producers can still get things to the public in a reasonable amount of time…but I suspect this could vary widely across different sectors and the politics involved could change quite a bit. Take, for example, the scandal a few years back involving Toyota and the lack of findings. It cost the company quite a bit, the government still had a duty to step in, but there was little conclusion – except that perhaps we’re all going to have black boxes in our cars  soon. Imagine a few incidents like this happening with a new widespread technology like driverless cars. How much could that set the industry back and feed perceptions that the technology really wasn’t ready?

“The moral self of bankers and brokers”

A recent article in American Sociological Review looks at how some bankers and brokers were able to help lead the country toward recession:

Those bankers, stockbrokers, and mortgage lenders whose actions helped cause the recession were able to act as they did, seemingly without shame or guilt, perhaps because their moral identity standard was set at a low level, and the behavior that followed from their personal standard went unchallenged by their colleagues, said Jan E. Stets, a sociologist with the University of California in Riverside.
“To the extent that others verify or confirm the meanings set by a person’s identity standard and expressed in a person’s behavior, the more the person will continue to engage in these behaviors,” said Stets, co-author of “A Theory of the Self for the Sociology of Morality” in the February issue of the American Sociological Review. “If others have a low moral identity and do not challenge the illicit behavior that follows from a person’s identity standard, then the person will continue to do what he or she is doing. This is how immoral practices can emerge.”
Studying the moral self is opportune given the practices of bankers, stockbrokers, and mortgage lenders whose behavior, in some cases, helped facilitate the recent recession in the United States, said Stets and fellow researcher Michael J. Carter of California State University at Northridge.
“The fact that a few greedy actors have the potential to damage the lives of many brings issues of right and wrong, good and bad, and just and unjust to public awareness,” they said. “To understand the illicit behavior of some, we need to study the moral dimension of the self and what makes some individuals more dishonest than others.”

This sounds like a good illustration of some basic sociological principles: personal aspects of the self can be heavily influenced by their context. Humans have agency but their options are constrained and influenced by the social environment in which they find themselves.

Here is what I wonder: can regulations alone successfully promote a higher personal identity standard?

Another question: are Americans angry/distraught/upset about moral lapses from individual actors within the financial industry or with the entire system? In other words, do Americans blame the context or the bad actors? In thinking about this, do most Americans even know who the main individuals involved in the economic recession are (beyond government officials)?

Linking the history of women’s clothing size and the sociology of culture

This article about women’s clothing sizes reminds me of the production approach within the sociology of culture: sizes were once regulated more closely.

This lack of sizing standards wasn’t always the case.

Until January 20, 1983, the U.S. Department of Commerce and the National Institute of Standards and Technology offered specifics for the sizing of apparel with body measurements for men, women, junior women, young men and children. These standards began in the late 1940s as a byproduct of the necessity for size-standardization in military uniforms during World War Two. Committees that included textile manufacturers, designers and retailers worked with the Department of Agriculture to determine these sizing standards and all adhered to it.

The program was discontinued in 1983. The measurements were not keeping up with the typical American body, which was changing due to better medicine and nutrition, along with an influx of new and varied ethnic groups. Sponsorship of these standards was assumed by private industry. That marked the start of sizing’s new Wild West, a lawless, volatile environment that continues today.

As the production approach would suggest, sizes were once standardized because of particular historical circumstances, namely, World War II. Once the regulation was deemed “unnecessary,” different companies took the sizes in completely different directions. The defense of the change given in the article, new bodies and types, doesn’t make much sense: the existing standards could have simply been altered rather than abandoned.

It would be interesting to see more on how the marketing and design of women’s clothes changed with the regulatory shift. Prior to 1983, companies couldn’t really play around with size and use it as a distinguishing feature. After 1983, different brands could use this as part of their image and sales pitch. Did brands that deviated a lot from the prior standards really help their cause?

Suburban treehouse illustrates typical NIMBY debates

A man in Arlington Heights, Illinois built a fairly large treehouse in his backyard: “It has a wraparound deck, two levels, small windows, siding and roofing that mimics the family home’s.” It drew the attention of several neighbors who then complained to the village who subsequently passed new regulations for treehouses. However, since this treehouse was built before the new regulations, it can stay put.

This could just be a local issue except that the pattern of events fits many NIMBY discussions in suburban communities. Here are some of the comments made by people involved in the story:

Village Manager Bill Dixon said treehouses have not been a major issue in town and urged the village board not to overreact to one particular case, no matter how bad.

“There are 18,000 single-family homes in town, but this is the only one we’re hearing about,” he said.

But Trustee Thomas Glasgow, who lives in the neighborhood, said the treehouse is overwhelming. He believes property values in the area have diminished as a result.

At Glasgow’s recommendation, the board agreed to limit the structures to the height of the home on the property.

Mayor Arlene Mulder expressed concern, however, that the code could effectively ban treehouses for some properties.

But Trustee Joseph Farwell said: “Sometimes, you can’t build exactly what you want where you want it because you live in a community.”…

But Piotrowski [one of the neighbors], who spoke at a recent village board meeting, said the new rules don’t go far enough. He wants to see the houses banned all together because he believes they are not safe.

For his part, Belmonte said the whole conflict could have been avoided if Piotrowski had raised his concerns right from the start.

In one story, you have many of the elements of a typical NIMBY issue: a person does something with their property that some neighbors do not like. These neighbors argue the action reduces property values and raises safety concerns. The community ends up creating new regulations to avoid such issues in the future while knowing that they may be limiting people from doing similar things. The property owner says that if the neighbors had simply come to him first, none of the rest of this had to happen.

The key quote to me comes from one of the village trustees: “Sometimes, you can’t build exactly what you want where you want it because you live in a community.” This is true – communities have all sorts of regulations and zoning in place to help limit some of these issues. And much of this has been codified even further in homeowners associations that really limit some of the possible actions by individual owners. Homeowners submit to these regulations because they don’t want to have to worry about what their neighbors might do and to protect their all important housing values. But the enduring question from this story and other similar cases is this: where does a community draw the line between the rights of individual property owners and the interests of neighbors and the rest of the community? At least in Arlington Heights, future treehouse builders will be more limited in what they construct in order to balance these two competing interests.