Saving lives is more important than blaming “petextrians”

Instead of buying into the blame game, we all need to take responsibility for each other’s safety – and, of course, our own

Originally published November 4, 2016

This week, Lorraine Sommerfeld and David Booth found themselves at odds concerning the announcement about a new system by Ford, which can detect and warn a driver of pedestrians distracted by their phones – or, “petextrians.” Lorraine gives her argument “for” here, and you can follow the link at the end for David’s alternate viewpoint.

“I believe he was actually on that damn phone, because that’s all he had in his face was that damn phone,” he said. “I believe he was looking at it and tragically walked in front of a vehicle.”

This sentence is breaking my heart. Not because I knew the family of a young man killed as he crossed a busy undivided highway near my city, but because his father painfully, but immediately, sought to lay blame not on a motorist, but on his own obviously beloved son. Sometimes people we love do dumb things. And sometimes it ends tragically.

Many collisions between cars and pedestrians or cyclists go unreported, including those that happen on private property, such as parking lots; that skews statistics. Most of us see dozens of people texting and walking every day, which makes our anecdotal knowledge feel stronger than the fact that the majority of pedestrians in Toronto (Pedestrian and Cycle Safety Report) – in fact, 67 per cent – had the right of way at the time they were hit; the vehicle had the right of way only 19 per cent of the time.

When cars meet pedestrians, regardless of who is at fault, it is the pedestrian who pays the biggest price. Always. Same with cyclists. Yet it remains a loaded conversation to have, as if ascertaining blame could somehow change physics. With drivers being increasingly distracted, pedestrians have to remain more vigilant; instead, campaigns to increase pedestrian and cyclist safety end up with one side blaming the other, and injury and fatality rates that remain stubbornly unacceptable.

Available statistics about car/pedestrian collisions can be twisted and folded a thousand ways, but most fail to recognize the fact that we do not have roadways, nor a car culture: We have a transportation system, and that transportation system encompasses those who walk, cycle, use mobility devices, drive, ride motorcycles or jog. That’s a lot of demands to place on a system, but no one life in that system is worth more nor less than another.

Inattentive pedestrians are a problem; jaywalking pedestrians are also a problem. But if 67 per cent had the right of way when hit, it’s wrong to keep solely blaming pedestrians. The weather is a huge factor, too, as witnessed by a recent dark, rainy October day when 18 pedestrians were hit on Toronto streets – one fatally. I shudder when I realize someone completely shrouded in black is crossing a street in front of me at night, and I have no indication they are even there. Sure, reflective vests look dorky, but looking dead isn’t a good look for many, either.

We know the slower cars are going, the far greater the safety of pedestrians. Last year a Toronto Board of Health study announced a person hit by a car going 50 km/h has an 85 per cent chance of dying; a car going 30 km/h cuts the risk to five per cent – so many jurisdictions are dropping speed limits to 30 km/h. That Toronto report also shows that the majority of collisions (54 per cent) take place on major arterial roads, those with 60 km/h posted limits. The next largest group is the minor arterials, at 34 per cent, with posted limits of 50 km/h. I am not a fan of artificially slow speed limits, including the recent rush to drop most inner speed limits to 30 km/h. Pedestrians are at their highest risk (69 per cent) in an intersection; we need to address crossing behaviour on both sides of the equation. And while the highest incident of collision occurs in intersections, the highest rate of fatality occurs mid-artery: jaywalking. Cars have gathered some speed, and these are not the streets that are already at 40 km/h (now 30 km/h).

It’s easy to blame young people for texting and walking, though studies now show that drivers who text and drive cut across many age groups. And pedestrians over 65 are over-represented in fatality rates, comprising just 14 per cent of the population yet showing up as half the deaths. Seniors are more likely to have cognitive issues, to move more slowly and to have a harder time recovering from injuries. Our population is aging, and pedestrian injury and death has to focus not just on school zones, but all our residents.

Toronto Police Traffic Services recently did an education blitz warning pedestrians that they aren’t to enter a crosswalk when the countdown indicator has begun. I read a lot of yipping about that, but I’ve been totally unable to turn at a light countless times because the crosswalk is always full of pedestrians regardless of the light cycle. Some cities are removing turns – both right and left – from their major downtown arteries to prevent the constipated results of cars unable to make safe turns.

Ford recently announced its newest people saving technology, Pre-Collision Assist with Pedestrian Detection, which will no doubt bring the Darwinists in swinging. It will detect people walking with their nose in a phone and warn the drivers with literal bells and whistles, and if that driver doesn’t respond, the car will brake itself to avoid the collision. Frankly, after Ford announced its intent to move to fully automated vehicles by 2021, announcements like these will be coming forward faster and faster; they’re simply part of the mechanisms that will be in place when there is no driver at all, not necessarily as a must-have feature to help you kill fewer people. This kind of tech is about not needing a driver rather than needing to warn one.

People on foot and on bicycles or any other device are part of our transportation system, as surely as any motorist. We have to do a better job at preventing metal from meeting flesh, but it’s going to take solutions and respect from all players. Drivers can’t rely on their car to warn them, people on foot need to be visible and aware and everyone has to know the rules aren’t just for everyone else.

See David’s opposing viewpoint at “Petextrians” proving Darwin right

Posted in Drive She Said | 3 Comments

A few things that need to change in cars

These problems are either annoying or dangerous – and in many cases, both

Originally published October 31, 2016

How do I hate thee, let me count the ways ….

Maybe hate is too strong a word. But if you watch new car ads, you’d be right to think every new invention, every new breakthrough, will be making your car life extraordinary. Instead, there are simply a lot of things that are just downright annoying.

Navigational systems are great. They’ve come so far over the past decade, it’s hard to believe anyone ever trusted them, before, ever. Most have overcome the delay that left you never knowing which way your little “you are here” arrow was really pointing. They’ve cleaned up directions to make them more user friendly, and the screens themselves are more responsive. So why do so many still insist on asking me if I’m sure I want to cancel a route? Cancel route, says the button. You press it. Are you sure you want to cancel route? Yes, Mom, I’m sure. And I’ve now had to take my eyes from the road twice rather than once. Navigation systems with trust issues.

As we descend into winter hell, the joy of heated seats, even on many entry-level cars, makes me wonder how I ever lived without them. Not just for rich bums anymore. But why do some manufacturers insist on making me activate them through a touchscreen? Why should I have to wade through two or even three levels of screens to turn them on? As surely you need a knob for volume control, you need separate buttons for heated seats. Stop making it difficult.

Speaking of that radio, a colleague recently brought a Subaru bugaboo to my attention. Subaru is now your raunchy radio censor. If Howard Stern and other adultish talk radio is your groove, rest assured that each time you turn the car off, it will helpfully reset the radio to the preview station to protect any youngsters that may be joining you on your next outing. That’s right: The manufacturer has hardwired a non-overridable command into its Legacy and Outback models that protects you from all the bad words. Talk about annoying.

While Subaru is thinking about the toddlers, other manufacturers are more concerned about the teens. Teen nanny systems – preset radio levels, no radio until seatbelts are done up, speed governors, software to trace where your kid has driven – are all big selling points to owners of teens. My sons have aged out of this sector but I spent years being targeted by carmakers who thought I would love these ideas. I don’t. If I don’t trust my kids, I don’t give them the keys. To monitor their every move is not beneficial, and merely delays people (and yes, teens are people) taking responsibility for their actions. Am I the only one who feels manipulated by auto manufacturers who raced to include ridiculous amounts of distracting technology in cars, only to have them turn around and propose yet more systems that will now protect me from what they introduced in the first place?

Many cars refuse to alert the driver that they are running with just daytime running lights on, and not their full system – including their rear running lights. Either engage the full system, or stop lighting up the dashboard and fooling too many drivers. When daytime running lights were mandated into law in Canada 25 years ago, it should have been mandatory that rear lights be connected to the system. So, I blame manufacturers for providing a half-assed solution and the government for allowing it.

Electronic gear shifters are more than an annoyance factor – it’s a safety one. Because you are adjusting the shifter so subtly, it’s easy to misjudge where you’ve set it. Without the definitive clunk of a regular shifter, you have to be more vigilant to make up for the fact that there is nothing intuitive about this design. Fiat Chrysler is heading to court over it, but they’re not the only ones using the design. I’m no fan of the fat dials that are being used in some Fords and Jaguars, among others, but I’ll take the argument that they’re being used to free up console space. Electronic gear shifters? You’re already using a shifter. Gimme something I can feel confident is in place.

Keep it simple, keep it intuitive, and keep the driver’s attention where it should be. And stop telling me I can’t listen to George Carlin.

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Insurance changes make fine print more important than ever

After a near-fatal accident, Adam Bari discovered his insurance coverage had shrunk, just 12 hours previously, from $2 million to $86,000

Originally published October 24, 2016

I use this space right here to nag readers, on occasion. I also use my perch in front of a TV camera sometimes. Much of it is not riveting stuff, to be honest, but my, how important it can turn out to be.

You were told earlier this year of big new changes to Ontario’s auto insurance policies coming into effect in June. It was all over the media and your insurance company would have contacted you. We are inundated with information proclaiming to be the “most important” and “don’t miss this,” and I really have no idea how to cut through the clatter and clutter, only that we must find a way.

Insurance is administered by companies, but signed off on by the province. Changes can happen across the country, and there is no way to stress how critical it is to be aware of those changes. Adam Bari, a 34-year-old father of twins, found out in truly dreadful fashion what a difference a day can make. Or even just 12 hours.

Bari was t-boned on his motorcycle on June 1st, 2016, just outside of Hamilton, Ontario. As the CBC reported at the time, he was deemed not at fault, though his injuries included “brain trauma, multiple broken bones in his right arm, leg and hand, as well as internal organ damage.” Mistakenly pronounced dead at the scene, he awoke from a coma a month later; he also awoke to the news that he will face a long rehab, mounting medical costs and his insurance coverage to compensate had shrunk, just 12 hours previously, from $2 million to $86,000.

This is a brutal, brutal example of what can happen if you ignore the fine print or miss the warnings. The changes are in the metric of how injuries are classified, and thereby covered. As Deb Arnold, a broker with Sound Insurance Services points out, the changes were to rectify and clarify a system that was becoming burdened by lawsuits:

“The definition of ‘catastrophic injury’ prior to June 1 was extremely broad and left too much to interpretation, which led to far too many lawsuits for individuals not catastrophically impaired by injury. The new definition is tighter and more comprehensive. The purpose of the change was to clarify what would be eligible for a tort liability suit and what would not. However, there will forever be grey areas within the law itself and within the courts. The new definition only applies to accidents occurring on or after June 1, so the new definition has not yet been tested in court.”

All insurance policies have standard coverages and limits and deductibles. Consumers can change or augment them like an à la carte menu. Back in June, Ontario changed the wordings and limits in some of those coverages, and drivers should no longer just assume what’s now on offer is good enough or indeed, in some situations, even close to adequate.

The most substantive changes effective on June 1, 2016, are: Instead of $50,000 for medical and rehab plus $36,000 for attendant care for non-catastrophic injuries, the policy change drops to a total of $65,000, a 25 per cent decrease. For catastrophic injuries, instead of $1 million for medical and rehab and $1 million attendant care, the total for both is now $1 million.

Adam Bari appears to be caught between those changes on both diagnosis and definitions, and benefit schedules. Arnold believes “their only recourse is to sue the responsible driver,” something the family is planning to do. The problem, of course, is the years a suit can take to wend its way through the system.

“Since June 1, I’ve urged all my clients to purchase the maximum amount of coverage available for medical, rehabilitation and attendant care for both non-catastrophic and catastrophic injury,” says Arnold. “For a good driver, the average additional premium is $120 per vehicle, in some cases it’s only charged per policy. It is well worth this additional premium.”

Every Ontario policyholder should be having a discussion with their insurance provider to review their requirements for Accident Benefit buy-up options. There are seven components to consider, not just medical, rehabilitation and attendant care: income replacement, caregiver housekeeping and home maintenance, dependant care, funeral and death benefit, indexation and tort liability deductible.

The changes are part of a government promise to bring insurance costs down. While fraud must be identified and stopped, consumers need to understand the impact of what they are actually paying for. Get out your policy and do a “what if” scenario; consider if you couldn’t do all the things you usually do while you recover, consider if your income replacement would be adequate (it probably isn’t if you make more than $30,000 a year) and how a long recovery would impact your household. Many of us drive every day; collisions don’t have to be your fault for you to bear the fallout.

We’re inundated with fine print that many of us ignore or don’t understand. Your insurance renewals will come with announcements of these changes and schedules delineating standards and options. But as Arnold points out, “You can amend coverage at any time. Even if your policy isn’t subject to the new benefit schedule, you can request that it be cancelled and reissued with the new benefits and any optional buy-ups at any time without incurring a cancellation charge.”

Set aside some time and go over the fine print.

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Are safer cars making drivers more dangerous?

As cars take over more duties, drivers are getting lazy and assume they’ll be protected

Originally published October 17, 2016

The Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) recently concluded a seatbelt blitz; they do it every fall. Between September 21st and October 7th they laid 4,252 charges. According to OPP spokesperson Sergeant Kerry Schmidt, that was down from last year by 1,243 charges. Fatalities to date are at 45, down slightly from 49 last year at this time. The same trend is holding true in Alberta, where Staff Sergeant Paul Stacey reports a 20 per cent drop in charges from last year in that province.

The true mind boggle is why they are still laying any charges at all. How stupid are people?

Schmidt says there is a consistent representation of who refuses to buckle up: overwhelmingly (three-quarters) male, between the ages of 24–35.

“The seatbelt law went into effect 40 years ago. This is not a generation who has ever known anything else,” he says. While Alberta has a more rural component to take into consideration, Stacey echoes the overrepresentation of males in the mix, both urban and rural.

“Of greater concern right now is the rising rates of fatalities due to distraction,” says Stacey. “We’re seeing increases in the U.S. and the U.K. and we’re trying to stop it, but it’s a tough battle. One of our members was hit while on a motorcycle; the motorist’s response? ‘But my lane departure light didn’t go off.’ We’re seeing a decrease in things like shoulder checking.”

Both officers make note of distracted driving as being a huge, and growing, concern, with the cocoon-like comfort of our cars, and the levels of distraction and entertainment too often removing the focus from the task at hand: driving. And as cars take over more and more of a driver’s duties, prepare for that skillset to fade, and for people to assume that the car will take care of things.

We’re at that time of year when we start to notice people who cruise around with only their daytime running lights on at night. I do fault manufacturers for not rectifying this deadly situation (DRLs in front, no lighting in the back; please pull on your full lighting harness if you’re not set in auto), but add things like lane departure warning systems that are falsely allowing drivers to think they no longer have to shoulder check. And it’s going to get worse. Backup cameras are great, but you still have to check behind you; front collision avoidance is handy, but you still can’t text. If drivers think their cars can do more and more, then drivers are going to do less and less. Fatalities and injuries are falling because cars are becoming so much safer, not because drivers are acquiring more skill.

Seatbelts are part of those technological advancements that are making some drivers take their safety for granted. Seatbelts aren’t just straps that bolt you in; ongoing research has made them engineering marvels that work in conjunction with your airbags to minimize injury to the occupants. The belt holds you a very precise and predictable position throughout the crash so the airbag can be effective without being deadly while the crumple zone absorbs the hit. Remove that restraint, and risk being flung clear of all those safety features that would otherwise greatly reduce injury and probably safe your life.

In Ontario, there are times when it is legal not to buckle up. If you have a medical certificate saying you can’t; your work means you’re getting in and out of the vehicle at frequent intervals, route not going over 40 km/h; rural Canada Posties; ambulance and firefighters while responding or working; cab drivers with a passenger, though they have to wear it when alone in the car (this differentiation makes no sense to me); someone in police custody, as well as the officers transporting them; and, when you’re going in reverse.

Those are your workable excuses. Schmidt has heard everything, including the classic, “My friend only escaped a fiery death because they were not buckled in and could crawl to safety.” I’ve been hearing that my whole life, one more urban legend that seems to have endless legs.

“There’s nothing worse than being a first responder and finding someone has been ejected,” continues Schmidt. “The safety cage is intact, the car did its job, all those safety features someone probably bought that car for, fatally negated.”

I’ve seen people slip the shoulder harness behind them. Please don’t do this. If you’re too big or too small for the factory installed belt, you can purchase extenders and resizers that will safely augment it to protect you. Some manufacturers will even let you order them when you buy the car.

Another journo related to me once that the 2015 Ford F-150 manual tells you how to disconnect the seatbelt chime. If you don’t have this Ford, don’t worry. The internet is teeming with workarounds to get rid of that annoying lifesaving chime in almost any vehicle.

Darwin for the win.

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

Can we solve traffic problems with autonomous cars?

Taking humans out of the driving equation might be just what we need

Originally published October 11, 2016

You know who can’t wait for autonomous cars? Traffic engineers.

If you’ve ever been stuck in traffic jams, especially repeatedly, you’re already aware of one of the most confounding, annoying things: kilometre after kilometre of bumpers and brake lights, and then it finally just frees up. No huge crash, no debris on the road, no four-car police takedown of an escaping bank robber. Nothing.

Radio announcers will tell you, “It’s just volume, folks,” when in actuality, they should be telling you, “It’s just humans being human, folks.” Traffic engineers define and anticipate how our vehicles should travel to achieve optimum results, and drivers themselves throw wrench after wrench into the works.

Traffic engineers may just be the happiest people on earth when you talk about autonomous vehicles (able to function without a driver) and connected ones (communicate with other vehicles and their surroundings).

“We factor perception and reaction into things like traffic signals,” explains Jen Malzer, president of the Canadian Institute of Transportation Engineers (CITE). “For instance, a delay on a light might be two and a half seconds for ‘time to see, time to decide.’ An automated car won’t need that much time. Our goal is always to create the right mix in the right places.” Malzer lives and works in Calgary, but was in Toronto recently and noted the ongoing construction we’ve been choking on for years.

“Cities change, and we follow the trends of time. A lot of travel choices have to be met.” She notes that repairing ailing infrastructure is a time to meet those changes, with things like the addition of bike lanes and the lowering of speed limits.

There is an awesome little video you can watch that explains exactly how traffic does flow, and how it should flow. It ultimately offers up the best solution: automated cars. Automation will remove the human factor, a point in the win column for those champing at the bit for it to get here as well as for those of us who still have reservations.

It depicts cars basically acting like those on a rollercoaster, ultrasonic sensors determining a set distance that eliminates the chance for some car to perform a bolting lane change or constant bumper sniffing, the interpretative dance moves of driving.

The best drivers are predictable drivers. You can’t get much more predictable than a perfectly functioning, ego-less computer. I buy into the modelling, but I will forever have trust issues with computers, from performance to security. Traffic engineers are tasked with handling it all: geography, technology, climate, human behaviour and financial constraints.

Part of the problem is that previously, roads were engineered to be travelled at a speed usually higher than what was posted. We all know the result: drivers drive the speed that feels the most natural and safest, which, surprise, is the one it was engineered to be. Malzer says traffic engineers, especially in residential areas, are altering the way they calculate roads now.

“We know lower limits are safer,” she notes, and that traffic calming built into the original plan is more effective than aftermarket attempts to bring down the speed.

I’ve seen the improvements that governments and media try to implement to steer traffic in the right direction around congestion. I’ve seen warnings of road closures months in advance. I’ve seen the birth of radio station traffic watches every five minutes. I’ve seen the invention of overhead signage that can be changed as new information becomes available. I’ve seen in-car navigational systems that reroute you around impending logjams. I’ve seen phone apps that do the same. And for every single one of these solutions, I’ve continued to watch people think those warnings do not apply to them. Hell, I’ve been one of those people.

It’s human nature. I don’t trust governments who put those signs up that mean nothing (shovels never hit the dirt in time, completion dates are pulled out of a leprechaun’s butt); I’ve seen overhead warnings of dangers that often never materialize, and the endless line of brake lights that materialize over … nothing. Malzer calls them shockwaves. I’ve heard them called phantoms. Either way, it’s human to respond in a human way to conditions, real or perceived.

Traffic engineers are giddy with anticipation about autonomous cars. The human factor is probably the toughest part of their job, and removing it would allow them to deliver a safer, more livable experience. Malzer quotes New York City’s former Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, saying streets are a great public asset hiding in plain sight.

In spite of the increasing stress on our most crowded highways, there are scores of engineers and planners fiercely working to make your commute, your neighbourhood and your transportation experience not just an integral part of your life, but a good one. Their excitement about connected and autonomous cars reveals the best way to do that.

Taking us out of the equation.

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Uber’s reach is growing – and here’s why I’m worried

Remember, here’s the bottom line: Uber plans to be fully automated and ditch their drivers

Originally published October 3, 2016

I’ve never made a secret of the pox that I believe Uber to be. Uber and all the other “sharing economy” exploits – AirBnB, Lyft – try to disguise a world that eschews regulation, oversight, consumer protection and workers’ rights. It’s like getting a stone chip in your windshield and then watching it grow into a spider’s web when even a little pressure is applied.

That spider web has reach, though. And whether you’re a big fan of Uber and use it all the time, or if you’re like me and avoid it like, well, like a pox, the company’s penchant for flouting laws can have implications for us all.

Don’t use it because you drive everywhere? Consider this in your next purchase of a used car. Constable Clint Stibbe with Toronto Police Services notes there are currently laws in place that let consumers know if they are buying a vehicle that was once a rental, a police car or a taxi. It’s called disclosure. At this point, no such thing applies to cars used for Uber. I’ve been calling attention to this since July 2015, and nothing has changed. That great deal you just found on Kijiji could have been driven just as hard as a cab or a rental. You might be buying a pig in a poke.

If you’re selling your car next to it, you’re now in an unbalanced situation. If my private car is up against a rental, a buyer will probably choose mine, depending on condition. But that buyer has no way of knowing unless the information is offered up by the seller, and frankly, that seller is hardly going to volunteer that information.

The Ontario Motor Vehicle Industry Council (OMVIC) regulates car sellers. It’s a layer of consumer protection in Ontario. They have a checklist of requirements for sellers, and one is that full disclosure must be made of material facts. “Is this fact material to the purchase of this vehicle?” In other words, would not knowing this make me reconsider or cancel my purchase? Many things are considered material, and their omission could result in OMVIC getting involved; they can charge sellers and assess fines. Previous collision, extensive repairs and daily rentals are all considered material. I’d like to add using your vehicle in a ride share program is material, as well.

And if you do use Uber on a regular basis, I’m aware there will be little to talk you out of it. Sometimes we forget that there is more than one currency in our lives, and the monetary cost has little to do with the societal impact of racing an economy to the bottom.

Uber has a $5,000,000 insurance policy in place to protect passengers, and it finally, after years of silence, extended insurance coverage for its drivers. They continue to operate in jurisdictions that don’t have laws to adequately cover them, and as local governments struggle to keep up – some are requiring professional licencing, most are now requiring criminal background checks for drivers, and adequate commercial insurance – Uber just rolls along, unperturbed by rules and regulations.

So maybe this autonomous car project Uber has going in Pittsburgh might solve this whole issue, right? You might want to read what Uber CEO Travis Kalanick told The Guardian:

“Nobody has set up software that can reliably drive a car safely without a human.”

Pretty eye-popping quote from the guy who is inviting you to catch a ride with his service. He said that in August, even though the launch of the service was earlier this summer. Granted, they still have techs behind the wheel, but make no mistake: Uber plans to be at the forefront of the blistering pace to be fully automated and ditch their drivers. Others (most notably Tesla) are eclipsing them, but the race is real.

In the pilot part of the program, according to another report in The Guardian, friends and family of Uber employees were invited to try out the service. First, they had to sign waivers that were very succinct. They release Uber from anything pertaining to “[r]isks associated with riding in an AV may include, without limitation, those caused by equipment failure, development vehicle operators or other safety drivers, actions of other motorists, weather, temperature, road conditions, negligence or human error,” according to acquired documents. These are the same cars now being used in public trials.

I understand if I choose to get in one of these cars and waive my right to, well, anything, but what about my rights as someone who hasn’t done this? Autonomous cars are great at some things, but there is still work to be done before they stop killing their occupants on occasion. You don’t have to be inside the car to be in danger; I’d prefer not to be a cyclist or a pedestrian around one. I know from self-parking exercises in several makes that this is not a completely reliable thing just yet.

But there are no regulations, and that’s the way Uber likes it. Even if you don’t use ride sharing programs, there are still ways they could be using you.

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Will drivers realize we lost our privacy when it’s too late?

Autonomous this, wireless that – it sounds great until you consider how much of your personal information is being stored, and possibly shared

Originally published September 26, 2016

If I want to fly under the radar as I drive my car, I can leave my cellphone at home, stay off the toll highway, keep out of urban areas with their I Spy Everything cameras and go about my nefarious business. Unless I crash or cause 6 o’clock newsworthy mayhem, chances are nobody will care what I do.

Plunk me in an autonomous car, and suddenly I’m driving around leaving cookies all over the place. And not the good kind. No thanks.

You can buy medic alert bracelets that say, “Delete my browser history.” Sure it’s a joke, but it’s not. Our cars are already essentially computers with tires; they’ve also been capable of sending information to other places – the manufacturer, insurance companies – for years. The advent of global positioning systems (GPS) created ethereal strings to satellites, even when the information was garbled and plunged people into the sea.

Technology is so fast, so amazing and so damned fun that people forget we’ve become the frog in the pot: The water is heating up so gradually we all think we’re enjoying a day at the spa instead of being cooked to death in our own bigger, better, faster, gotta have it, watch me! watch this! FOLO, YOLO pot. We’re running full tilt off a cliff where, using our last gasp of air, we pull the cord on our parachute emblazoned with the word “privacy,” which turns out instead to just be a Hello Kitty backpack.

Don’t tell me if I have nothing to hide, I have nothing to fear. I have never seen an argument that so weakly grasps the importance of handing over information. And you are being worked, trust me. I recently had to amend my car insurance policy and, as I picked and parsed over limits and deductibles and coverages, I was asked if I’d like to save 20 per cent on my rates, and the spiel began about monitoring systems. It took me over a minute to realize what she was getting at, so good was the spin. I research and write about this all the time, and I was still getting an end run.

I’ve written about these trackers that insurance companies began offering up to clients several years ago in the U.S. It’s an insidious case of Big Brother oversight that millions are happily signing up for because they have nothing to fear, of course. What do they care if an insurance company knows they never do hard stops, never break the speed limit and never drive in the dark? Looks like a great deal as they tell you there is no downside: Obey their guidelines and get a discount; disobey and it’s a wash because they will not penalize you.

Sure.

Michael Froomkin is a law professor at the University of Miami who specializes in privacy, the internet and robotics. As we see the rapid merging of telemetry and automation, I asked how much I can rely on the assurances that my information won’t be folded or twisted.

“Nobody who understands this can give those assurances,” he says. “The whole point is to find unpredictable correlations, to find what we didn’t know was there.” He notes there is a difference between the traditional black box model, where information can be pulled after the fact, and the telemetry model that is always on, always transmitting. “With the right to resell, all this data is warehoused and mined.” He mentions manufacturers, banks and insurance companies as first in line for such information.

Anyone in the business of making money is in the business of protecting their ability to make money. Insurance companies and car manufacturers and things like Uber and Lyft are in the business of making money. What happens to my information? They assure me they won’t sell it or use it against me. I do not believe them, just like I don’t believe Facebook and Google. The difference is that I presume internet companies are tracking my movements and leading me to shoe stores, but I do not want my car manufacturer or insurance company marketing private information based on my movements.

As more and more cheer the coming of full autonomy, I definitely applaud the safety implications of removing the human factor; we cause the crashes. But let’s say I have a whole roster of medical appointments that are my business only. All that information – locations, appointments – is now sitting on a car manufacturer’s, car-for-hire or insurance company’s server. Which big corporate entity gets to trade notes with another and decide I no longer qualify for benefits where I work? Who could twist the fact I go to the wine store three times a day to their benefit? What jobs will I not even get based on this information that has been retrieved by entities I can’t even predict?

When insurance companies originally pitched their “get a discount, give up nothing” trackers, I immediately asked an insurer insider how long until that information would be used against customers. I was told it won’t be. Yet.

Frog, pot.

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Your car is rarely worth the sum of all its parts

Before you hit the showroom, make sure you’ve researched a car’s true cost of ownership

Originally published September 19, 2016

Your economically priced new car is definitely hiding something. Several somethings.

If you’ve ever suffered even a parking lot ding or a minor fender bender, you already know the cost of a car is rarely as expensive as the sum of its parts. It’s true that vehicles have never been safer, but it’s also true they’ve never been more complicated (and expensive) to fix – especially from the outside looking in.

Headlights are a notorious sore spot; the entire component often has to be replaced and even on a mainstream, relatively inexpensive car that can average $800 to $900. Can’t you just replace a bulb? Maybe, but don’t count on it. And whereas in bygone days headlights were round or square, they are now increasingly part of the car’s structure and crush zone, as well as contributing to the aerodynamics.

“The other thing to consider is that for the first five years or so on many vehicles, you have to use original equipment parts; there is no secondary source available,” says APA consultant John Raymond. “Your ability to go a cheaper route is compromised in that initial stage.” He notes that even when those secondary sources come to market, both they – and recyclers – will still charge 50 to 75 per cent of the OEM price.

“Ask ahead of time about something as basic as oil requirements,” suggests mechanic Chris Muir. “GM is all synthetic dexos, Nissan is ester oil and Dodge diesels are over $100 per oil change. Basic maintenance items on a new car can be frightening.” His point? Things that used to be the territory of the upper echelons have now filtered down to the regular folks. It makes sense; we also get a lot of those bells and whistles and spectacular technology, but that doesn’t mean we are always prepared for the costs that go along with maintaining it.

When you’re doing your research, make sure you’re reading the manufacturer’s fine print on fuel economy. Some are now basing their published numbers on using high-octane fuel, but you won’t see that high-octane fuel being a requirement – only a choice. I’m aware everyone is looking for an edge, but not putting a “high-octane fuel recommended” sticker inside the gas door but basing your loud and proud fuel numbers on it is misleading.

Rain-sensitive wipers are also working their way down the food chain, but if you’re used to getting your windshield replaced for a couple of hundred bucks, guess again. Those wipers work in conjunction with the actual windshield and that makes it original equipment at a significantly higher cost. I had one reader who believed the function itself was broken only to discover it was the replacement windshield that was to blame.

“Low-profile tires look great in the dealer showroom,” says mechanic Eli Melnick. “But replacement cost – particularly for larger wheels – is much higher. Also, high-performance tires don’t last. Replacing OEM large-diameter alloy wheels is very pricey; they’re easily damaged by potholes. Run-flat tires can be a serious pain in the wallet and not every shop has the proper equipment to replace them.”

The APA’s Raymond echoes Melnick’s tire concerns, and adds this reminder: “With the weak Canadian dollar, tire prices are definitely taking a hit. Consumers need to consider how much replacing those tires and investing in winters will cost in today’s economic climate.”

Perhaps the most sobering reminder of all that your car is rarely worth the sum of its parts comes from insurance broker Debbie Arnold of Sound Insurance. “If the repairs are going to cost more than the vehicle is worth, it’s written off. Typically, when airbags go off it’s an indication of the severity of the crash and the likelihood of severe internal damage.” In entry-priced vehicles, and even some midrange ones, the costs of airbags simply makes it too costly to bother fixing. They don’t repair piñatas for a reason.

If you’re not happy with an insurance company’s decision, some will allow a client to purchase back a salvaged vehicle but as Arnold warns, it can be very costly to rebuild and many insurers will not insure a rebuild, which will show on the ownership.

You have a lot of research to do before you hit a showroom. Make sure the true cost of ownership lands on that list, and ask some good questions at the back of the house as well as up front.

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Buying an EV doesn’t entitle you to break the rules

A Toronto man expects a parking bylaw to be changed because he bought an electric car with nowhere to park it while charging. Wait, what?

Originally published September 12, 2016

Apparently, even if you don’t build it, they will come.

A Toronto man, Todd Anderson, bought a Chevy Volt even though he has nowhere to park it and no way to legally charge it. Oh, he had a charging station installed on his front lawn, but limited and prohibited parking means he has to run the extension cord across the sidewalk. He is doing the only thing that makes any sense, telling the city to: a) change the bylaws so he can legally park right in front of his house (because nobody else in the crowded city wants that, right?); and b) let him run his extension cord beneath the sidewalk (he’ll pay).

What?

Anderson’s local ward councillor, Paula Fletcher, is siding with her constituent, and doesn’t think the city is moving fast enough providing infrastructure for electrics. While I can sympathize with a city budget that can’t begin to give all the people all the things all the time, I have to scratch my head at a car owner who is so itchy to use his provincial rebate of $12,500 buying a new car that he fails to factor in the most obvious problem with that acquisition: He’s got nowhere to put it.

I’ve seen people buy massive pickups that don’t fit in their tiny driveways and squawk when they get ticketed for blocking the sidewalk. I’ve seen people acquire more cars than they have allotted parking for and then squawk when they get ticketed for parking in designated visitor’s parking areas. They’re all stupid; a change in your circumstances doesn’t warrant a change in bylaws that serve the majority. If you want to park on your lawn, go somewhere that nobody can see your lawn.

I must admit, when I initially read of Anderson’s parking-less dilemma, I presumed he’d purchased the Chevy and would be charging it at work each day. It’s a little back-assed, but workable. As long as you’re charging on one end or the other, you should be able to make it work for a city car. But instead to learn his solution, right out of the gate, was to street park his car (legally or otherwise) and haul an extension cord across the sidewalk gave me pause. You don’t get to obstruct public sidewalks; you don’t get to place tripping hazards out for your neighbours because you made a purchase you didn’t think through. I don’t even like having an extension cord to a charging car running down my driveway, and the only people who would sue me for endangering them would conceivably be family or friends.

You also don’t get to whine that your government isn’t doing enough to help you. I’d say the fact all those neighbours (and me) provided that $12,500 towards that new car should be evidence you’ve already received more than any other car buyer or transit user. Anyone buying a car is required to factor in all the costs and requirements of car ownership; somebody with no capacity to legally or adequately charge an electric vehicle but buying one anyway is like someone with chronic diarrhea buying a box of bran flakes just because he has a coupon.

In California, where sales of electrics are surging, there are wars breaking over charging stations. People unplug others’ vehicles, feuds rage over entitlement issues and a lot of people take a break from hugging trees to punch each other over an outlet. A deficit of public charging stations highlights that government “green” projects are themselves pretty green.

Infrastructure is sadly lacking in most places when it comes to things like charging stations. Governments, not just ours, are tasked with doing the best for the most with ever-tighter margins. New builds are accommodating a change in the automotive landscape, but quite frankly, that landscape is changing at warp speed. Nobody will be able to keep up, not just local governments. The industry itself is spinning like a top; we used to report on changes rolled out with a new model year, now they’re happening almost daily.

If you’ve lived in an urban core, you know that on-street parking is an ongoing war. Residents perfect the time shuffle, renew permits, put up with tickets and jockey hard for something near their postal code when the weather turns. While there is (and should be) built-in exceptions to parking for those who require designated handicapped spaces, I’ve seen neighbours go to battle over even that situation being abused. Make me understand how I’m going to be okay with the guy we just ponied up $12,500 to now receiving red-carpet treatment because he’s “saving the environment.” I’d argue his car-free neighbours who walk or cycle over that extension cord are doing more.

We need more public charging stations – no doubt about it. But the calibre of cars being produced today makes it nearly impossible to not be able to find the perfect vehicle for your circumstances. Mr. Anderson’s hybrid electric has the backup capability of a gas engine, but it seems he has no practical way to implement its main power source. If he truly had no place to park and charge this car, he could have purchased one of dozens of highly fuel-efficient cars in this size segment.

Oh, wait. No thousands and thousands in rebates going that route. Never mind.

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When automakers buy the best parking spots: a tipping point?

We all want to feel special, but when one automaker can buy the best spots in the parkade, are we unleashing a car class war?

Originally published September 5, 2016

“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” – Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire. And also Lexus Canada at the Edmonton International Airport.

Can you take branding too far? Lexus recently cut a deal until March 2017 with Edmonton International Airport (EIA) which will see 30 parking spots in choice locations reserved for those who own a Lexus. While they will in no way move or replace any existing accessible parking spots mandated by law, the Lexus spots are close to elevators and walkways – prime real estate. Part of the campaign also features an office tower wrapped in the Lexus signage; it looks quite nice.

But those parking spots? It might be one of the few advertising campaigns I’ve seen that relies on people to be Canadian; it needs us to be polite and laidback and, while maybe banging the steering wheel when we can’t find a parking spot, still just cruise on by. Will people do it? The airport is banking on it.

Like many facilities – think hospitals – parking generates a lot of much needed cash. The more scarce the real estate, the more you’ll pay for parking. High hospital fees stick in most people’s craw because it’s not like you head to a hospital for recreation or entertainment. Airport parking rates approach usurious levels in some cities, but it’s hard to grumble at the same pitch reserved for hospitals. Those tasked with raising revenue for these facilities know they’re shooting fish in a barrel when they raise rates, so while I’ll give the EIA points for at least being creative, I’ll still question the message it sends.

Those spots you see reserved for pregnant women and people with children are just courtesy spots. Park in a handicapped spot without a valid permit, and you’ll get ticketed and towed (hopefully). Park in front of one of those little pink signs, and nothing will happen. I’ve gotten into arguments with readers in the past about this, but forgive me: Being pregnant is not a handicap. If your pregnancy impairs your ability to get around, your doctor can issue you a temporary permit to use the accessible parking spots. Having toddlers is a pain in the butt, but that, too, is not a handicap. Why let the most able-bodied – little kids – come to believe they shouldn’t have to hoof it in fair weather or foul from the minivan to the mall?

The law surrounding the Lexus spots is similar: There isn’t one. The airport has said they won’t be enforcing it, and while bylaws vary in jurisdictions, all will enforce those who park illegally in accessible parking spots even on private property – parking lots. So while Lexus has paid a bunch to be able to tell their customers they can avail themselves of this specialty treatment, there really is no guarantee. You might get there and find a row of Ladas instead of Lexuses. My dark heart hopes you do.

Why? Because we acquiesce too easily. The Edmonton Airport has said it is open to entering into similar arrangements with other car brands. It’s hard enough cruising through concrete bunkers looking for a parking spot when you’re anticipating the humiliation that is air travel today, without having to scoot down aisles looking for your brand. And do we need a further winnowing of the car crowd? Will Lexus have to cede to Ferrari? Will my Hyundai be tossed to the hinterlands?

A similar sorting of the great unwashed has been at work inside airports for years now. We all need to be special, it seems, to have some kind of reward. You’ll hear boarding calls for elite travellers, for high milers, for propriety people, for those with this card and those with that one, for those with kids, those who need assistance and those who made their reservations while wearing a pink bowtie.

On a recent flight to Austria, I watched the gate swell with so many children I thought I’d stumbled into Romper Room. After a half-hour delay, I considered asking if I could borrow a kid. Next up was a double row of wheelchairs that resembled the starting gate at the Sunny Acres Retirement Indy. I’d seen at least two of those now requiring assistance strolling through the airport earlier, but we’ll do anything for an edge, it seems. I don’t begrudge anyone the help they need, but by the time your kid is 12 or you need that wheelchair just for the final 10 metres, I push up an eyebrow.

As the delay yawned on and on, a red-faced guy started waving his boarding pass around, yelling that he was super elite and demanded to be let on the plane. I wanted to tell him that all of us were super elite through the kaleidoscope of an upside down world, where you have to wonder: If everyone is special, is anyone?

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