Driverless vehicles? Even in D.C. streets? An autonomous car takes a capital test run.

Driverless vehicles? Even in D.C. streets? An autonomous car takes a capital test run.

By Ashley Halsey III, Washington Post, August 25 at 7:33 PM

The Washington Post goes for a spin in Carnegie Melon University’s autonomous vehicle. Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) says it’s the way of the future. (Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

Driverless cars are coming. And those of us who drive in Washington know that the city offers its own particular version of driver hell. What we don’t know is what will happen when the autocar finds itself in that hell. So we set out on a summer afternoon to see how a driverless car could do on the streets of the nation’s capital.

The little car is tootling around Washington — pretty much on its own — when a police officer bolts into the road ahead of it, almost within spitting distance of the Capitol dome.

What is the cop waving about? Hard to say. The car is being driven by computers, and wild waving is a bit too complicated for them to understand.

Passenger Jarrod Snider taps a button on the center console and put his hands on the steering wheel.

“Autonomous ready,” the voice of the computer says a fraction of a second later, eager to take control again.

Swing a stick on the Mall this summer and you’ll hit a dozen skeptics who doubt the streets of Washington — or any city — ever will be filled with cars that drive themselves. But the doubters may well witness that transformation in their lifetime, and very likely sooner than they think.

The ability of the vehicle cruising unnoticed among the tourists and important people in pinstripes on Capitol Hill would shock most of them. A ride in it also points to a few chinks in its armor.

The autonomous car uses three types of sensors to make decisions. See how the cars work.

The computers running the car, for example, can see the police officer bustling into the middle of Constitution Avenue at First Street NW. But they can’t figure out why he is doing it — and neither can the people riding in the car. It turns out the officer wants to wave off a driver in another car who was making an improper turn.

Could the car have handled it without Snider’s help?

“Yeah, it started to slow down before I took over,” Snider says, “and as he stepped out of [our] lane and walked across the street, the car would have continued to go. The car obviously doesn’t understand gestures like ‘Stop here.’ ”

If this car — a silver-gray Cadillac SUV converted to autonomous driving by Carnegie Mellon University — looked the least bit odd, the Capitol Police would swarm after it with machine guns.

It doesn’t. But it’s bristling with technological weapons.

Two cameras — one pointing up at traffic signals, the other down at lane lines — are hidden beneath a slight ridge added just above the windshield. There is longer-range radar behind the Cadillac medallion on the front grille and shorter-range radar behind the front bumper. A pair of laser beams peer out from that bumper. Unseen behind tinted windows near the back seat, from unobtrusive boxes that match the Cadillac’s tan interior, a radar and a laser beam look out to each side. From the rear bumper, more radar and lasers.

All of them feed into a bank of four computers hidden in the spare-tire well beneath the rear floor of the vehicle. The computers also get GPS data and mapping feeds. They know speed limits and, unlike the other driver on Constitution Avenue, places where left turns are illegal and where right turns on red are okay. If one computer fails, the others take over its chores and the person behind the wheel gets an alert.

Right now, put the Cadillac on an interstate and its developers say it could drive you from Washington to San Francisco, though it would need your assistance at gas stations.

But in D.C.? That’s another matter.

The city’s streets are full of cars driven by impatient locals and bewildered tourists. Pedestrians talking on cellphones, texting tourists, cabs darting across lanes to grab a fare, bicyclists by the dozens, out-of-state tour buses whose drivers appear to be feeling their way around town.

Jarrod Snider of Carnegie Mellon University manually parks an autonomous car on Capitol Hill in June. The 2011 Cadillac SRX has been retrofitted with cameras and sensors that can detect traffic lights and pedestrians and read some road signs. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

“We’ve tested this vehicle in many areas, and this area is pretty difficult,” Snider says, dropping his hands from the wheel as the computers take over again. “We think it’s doing a pretty good job. ”

“But we have more work to do,” Raj Rajkumar, the Carnegie Mellon professor who directs the project, says from the back seat.

The car buzzes on down Constitution, flips on its right-turn signal, slows and then turns south on First Street. It identifies a red traffic light and dutifully stops in front of the Supreme Court until the light changes.

Then there’s trouble.

A white service truck is stopped in the right lane just past the light, and a yellow cone plopped behind it says it isn’t going anywhere soon.

“I’m going to take over to get us past,” Snider says, punching the console button. “It doesn’t have the higher-level reasoning like we have that there’s a cone there so this truck’s probably not going to move. So it’s trying to cue up in traffic, basically. It’ll just sit there.”

The computers are back in command as the car nears Independence Avenue, signals its intent to turn right and then stops to wait for the red light to change. This traffic light is one of six in the District that alerts the Cadillac to its color. Some day all lights may do that, but the car’s cameras don’t really need the help.

The main computer control center resides in the rear cargo area of the car. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

The intersection is aswarm with the lunch-hour crowd, and each pedestrian in the crosswalk or sidewalk shows up as a green squiggle on the standard dashboard screen that Cadillac builds into all its vehicles. In this one, however, the screen displays 360 degrees around the car: people, obstacles, traffic signals, construction zones and other vehicles.

The big red bus in the right lane on Independence Avenue is the Cadillac’s next challenge.

“Changing lanes,” the computer announces, moving to get around it.

The bus driver apparently doesn’t like that.

“We’re trying to pass him, but then he cut us off,” Snider says.

If she is upset — and the firm but melodious voice of the vehicle unquestionably belongs to a woman — she doesn’t let on. Her verbal skills are limited. In addition to “Autonomous ready” and “Changing lanes,” she says “Starting up,” “Entering work zone” and “Exiting work zone.”

The rest of the computers’ communication — currently and what’s planned in the future — come in chimes, beeps and vibrations. If the person in the driver’s seat touches the wheel or either of the floor pedals, much as with cruise control, the computer relinquishes control. If the computer needs the driver to take over, the steering wheel and passenger seat may vibrate.

A black rectangle below the rear bumper is one of many hidden sensors on the self-driven car. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

A small camera is mounted next to the vehicles rear-view mirror. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

“Sometimes, if it becomes not confident about something, it can tell you to take over, and if everything’s okay, it can tell you it’s ready to drive autonomous,” says Snider, lead engineer on the project at Carnegie Mellon. “It’s just providing some feedback to the driver.”

Anybody who has tried to turn left from Independence onto Washington Avenue knows that’s a lousy intersection, and the Caddy computers see that, too.

“It doesn’t have a green arrow here, so obviously it’s got to detect the cars coming from the other direction,” Snider says as the car waits patiently, then makes the turn, veers right onto Second Street and then takes the on-ramp to Interstate 395 south.

As two merge lanes that lead to the highway come together, a silver Mercedes suddenly forges ahead and Snider pops the console control button.

“Maybe I should have let [the computers] do that,” he says with regret after the merge is complete. “It definitely has some trouble with that because of the drivers here. The car doesn’t have that kind of aggressiveness. It won’t push its way in or force its way into a merge.”

Back in control, the computers accelerate the car to 50 mph as it crosses the bridge into Virginia, surrounded by other cars.

“It’s determining how fast to drive based on the curvature of the road, based on the other cars in front of it,” Snider says. “It knows the speed limit, and it’s not going to violate the speed limit. But it can obviously do other things, like here you can see it’s slowing down to make its way into the other cars.”

“Changing lane,” the computer chimes in.

“So all of this is being updated in real time at a very high rate, determining what to do,” he says. “So now it’s just taking an exit here.”

The car zips off I-395, takes a right in front of the Pentagon and then neatly merges back onto I-395 headed north. Over the bridge, it will peel off the freeway back into D.C. traffic and complete an uneventful trip back to a parking space beside the Capitol reflecting pool.

Driverless cars are coming to the United States and rest of the globe, Rajkumar is saying as the Cadillac covers the final blocks.

Professor Raj Rajkumar is director of Carnegie Mellon University’s autonomous-car project. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

“Absolutely no doubt at all,” he says, before quickly acknowledging the doubters. “I welcome their skepticism. Technology cannot be stopped. We just have to make sure that it is safe, affordable and legal.”

Don’t expect an autonomous car to land in your driveway with a “big bang,” he says.

Remember anti-lock brakes? How about cruise control?

Those were the first steps, he says.

The next one coming in assembly-line cars — within three to five years — will be a highway pilot feature, he says. Put the car in the correct lane, tell it to go to San Francisco, and it will.

A year or two later, highway “plus-plus” will arrive, allowing that San Francisco-bound car to weave around the slowpokes along the way.

In the same time frame — three to four years — look for traffic-jam assist capability. The car will take over for your while inching through bumper-to-bumper traffic and alert you to take back control once there’s clear sailing.

“The [totally] driverless version will happen in the 2020s,” he says. “But the whole process will be incremental. More and more scenarios that we drive in will become automated, and one fine day you’ve given up complete control, but you don’t even notice.”

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.

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Janene Jackson, Top aide to D.C. mayor departs, leaving Gray without key negotiator on soccer stadium

Top aide to D.C. mayor departs, leaving Gray without key negotiator on soccer stadium

Janene Jackson (right), Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s director of policy and legislative affairs, is the latest high-profile departure from the mayor’s office. Gray will leave office in January. (Executive Office of the Mayor, D.C./Courtesy of the Executive Office of the Mayor)

By Aaron C. Davis, Washington Post, August 22

Janene D. Jackson, a top aide to D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray, is leaving early next month, further endangering Gray’s hopes of convincing the city council to approve a complicated land deal to build a soccer stadium in his final months in office.

Jackson was among Gray’s first appointments after his victory in 2010. A former aide to D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, she was credited with restoring working ties between the offices of the mayor and council, which had grown hostile and dysfunctional during the tenure of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.

She was also the city’s top liaison to Congress during tough years, as Gray often taunted congressional leaders over budget shutdowns and efforts to secure voting rights and statehood.

Jackson is the latest in a series of key departures from Gray’s inner circle since he lost the Democratic primary to Council member Muriel E. Bowser in April.

Pedro Ribeiro, Gray’s communications director, left this month for a senior post in the Department of Homeland Security. Gray’s directors of transportation and consumer and regulatory affairs have also left.

Janene Jackson (center), was Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s director of policy and legislative affairs. Previously she held a top post at the D.C. Chamber of Commerce (Executive Office of the Mayor/Courtesy of the Executive Office of the Mayor)

Jackson will become senior counsel at Holland and Knight’s public policy and regulation group, practicing law and eventually lobbying, once a one-year prohibition for doing so with the District expires.

In an e-mail to senior staff members this week, Gray’s chief of staff, Chris Murphy, lauded Jackson for her service and patience in the seemingly “impossible task” of managing relationships between the mayor and council.

Live in the Washington region? Good news: Odds are your car won’t be stolen.

Live in the Washington region? Good news: Odds are your car won’t be stolen.

By Ashley Halsey III, Washington Post, August 18 at 12:01 AM

Good news: If you live in the Washington region, odds are your car won’t be stolen.

In fact, there’s never been a better time for your car not to be stolen if you live in or around Washington.

Fewer cars were stolen in Maryland last year than at any time since 1975. (Back in the Gerald Ford era they used to keep records on something called “paper,” and after computers came into vogue, that information seems to have disappear, so there’s no way of knowing whether Maryland’s 2013 low was an all-time low.)

Virginia had the lowest stolen car rates in almost 40 years, and car theft has dropped 60 percent in the District in the past decade.


Best guess is that cars are harder to steal and easier to find.

John B. Townsend II of AAA attributes the decline to “increased public awareness, warp-speed advances in factory-installed and after-market anti-theft-prevention technology.”

That’s been helped by better police techniques, like the use of patrol-car-mounted cameras, which scan the license plates of rows of parked cars as the police vehicle rolls down a street.

That’s all well and good, provided you’re not one of the unlucky ones.

There were 13,429 vehicles stolen in Maryland last year, according to the state’s recently released 2013 Uniform Crime Report, a 7.3 percent decrease from 2012.

Prince George’s County has the lowest number of thefts on record, almost 16 percent below the previous year, but still leads the state with 4,293 vehicles swiped. Montgomery County almost matched its Maryland neighbor with an almost 15 percent drop, with 913 stolen cars.

The crime report put a value on the state’s stolen vehicles — $77,590,345 — and another value on the number of cars recovered — $50,164,181 — for a net loss of $27,426,154.

With the economy improving and vehicle theft becoming more difficult, the local trends were reflected nationwide, according to data tracking by AAA Insurance. The National Insurance Crime Bureau said there were 697,979 motor vehicle thefts, a slight decline.

The crime bureau said that drop came after an unexplained “small increase in vehicle thefts [in 2012] ended a consecutive eight-year run of decreasing thefts.”

The District reported 3,147 stolen vehicles, a more than 11 percent decline over the previous year, according to the 2013 Crime Report by the Metropolitan Police Department.

The D.C. number is down dramatically from 2009, when 5,299 vehicles were stolen, and from 2004, when 8,136 motor vehicles were taken.

Across Virginia, there were 8,318 auto thefts in 2013, according to data compiled by the Virginia Help Eliminate Auto Theft program.

Northern Virginia and the two other densely populated parts of the state recorded the highest rates of stolen cars.

Thefts declined almost 7 percent last year in Fairfax County, with 767 vehicles stolen. Arlington County had 157 thefts last year, a decrease of 13.74 percent.

The drop was more than 23 percent in Loudoun County, where 112 vehicles were stolen. Prince William County recorded 327 thefts, a 10.41 percent decline.

“Since, 1991, Virginia’s motor vehicle theft rate per 100,000 residents has declined by approximately 68 percent,” according to the Virginia State Police 2013 Facts and Figures Report.

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.

To self-insure or not? Why D.C. experts say go for it

Aug 15, 2014, 4:34pm EDT

To self-insure or not? Why D.C. experts say go for it

Illustration for the Washington Business Journal by Michele Melcher

Your guide for what you need to know before Jan. 1, 2015.

Tina Reed

Staff Reporter- Washington Business Journal

Most large employers health plans are already self-funded.

But there may be something to be said for the smaller companies to get into the game, experts told me recently.

I was asking about what steps companies with 100 or more employees should be careful not to forget as they brace for the impact of the 2015 mandates of the Affordable Care Act. And instead, they were telling me about strategy. And you wouldn’t skip strategizing when it comes to any other part of growing your business.

But many employers still treat their health care costs like they’re almost uncontrollable, said Josh Jeffries, a principal at Arkin Youngentob Associates LLC in Bethesda. Instead, they should be eyeing alternatives in how they offer coverage, he said.

For instance, shifting to a self-insured model allows businesses to reduce the overall fixed cost of their insurance plans by instead taking on the variable medical claims that come up for employees (while of course, meeting the minimum essential coverage required by the law.)

That gives your company more opportunities to save money without the risk of huge losses, Jeffries said.

Firms with less than 250 employees all the way down to 10 employees should consider self-funding, said Keith Lemer, President of Bethesda-based WellNet Healthcare Group. “This will help employers to not only take advantage of favorable incentives in ACA to exempt self-insurance from many requirements imposed on insurers, but also to avoid many of the ACA’s costly benefit mandates and requirements,” Lemer said.

For example, where insurance plans must include a package referred to as “essential health benefits,” the rules are relaxed for self-insured plans when it comes to defining coverage for paying for ambulatory patient services, such as doctor’s visits and outpatient services, emergency visits, hospitalization, maternity and newborn care and mental health care and more.

In addition to relaxed rules, self-funding allows more customization to the specific workforce, employer control over the health plan and its services and the freedom to contract with any provider or provider network, Lemer said.

And, he said, they come with a “higher probability of reducing overall employee health benefit expense.”

But doesn’t that open you up to additional risk in the case of an expensive year? (Think: AOL’s “distressed baby” scenario involving one of its employees needing intensive and expensive intervention following a premature delivery).

Having a “stop loss” insurance for your company’s self-insured plan can mitigate that risk, Jeffries said. But at the same time, it stops your company from experiencing the potential 15 to 20 percent increase in premiums following an expensive year.

“You’re in a much better situation in a bad year or a good year,” Jeffries said.

Find that information useful? Check out more recommendations in my front page ‘Survival Guide’ to 2015 for more ideas. Have questions? Let me know and I’ll circle back to our experts with your questions.

Tina Reed covers health care.

Could the future of the District’s health exchange now be up to a judge?

Aug 15, 2014, 5:54pm EDT

Could the future of the District’s health exchange now be up to a judge?

Friday was the deadline for the city to explain why U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell should dismiss a legal challenge from a life insurance group against D.C.’s planned 1 percent tax on all “health-related’ insurers to fund D.C. Health Link.

Tina Reed

Staff Reporter- Washington Business Journal

The future of a state-run health exchange in the District is now up to a judge.

Well, at least in part. Friday was the deadline for the city to explain why U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell should dismiss a legal challenge from a life insurance group against D.C.’s planned 1 percent tax on all “health-related’ insurers to fund D.C. Health Link.

That group, the American Council of Life Insurers, already filed documents calling the tax unconstitutional, saying the judge should ultimately consider their challenge to the tax, but also stop the tax from going into effect in the meantime.

Now Howell, a federal District Court judge, will consider both issues together.

In July, the American Council of Life Insurers filed suit saying the planned tax is unconstitutional and violates the Affordable Care Act. The council passed a law earlier this year requiring all health-related insurers to pay the tax, regardless of whether they can sell products on the exchange, which breaks the law, ACLI said in a filing against the District.

“At its core, this case is about the Exchange Authority’s attempt to foist the costs of its Health Benefit Exchange … on a select group of insurance companies who are unable to sell their products on the D.C. Exchange and derive no benefit from it,” ACLI wrote. “While the Authority claims that it had no other choice, the reality is that any short-term funding gap is a problem of the District’s own making.”

While this is just the next step in the case, the implications couldn’t be higher for the future of D.C.’s health insurance exchange, District officials said in documents filed with the court Friday evening.

"To deny the ability to fund adequately the Exchange will force the Authority to abandon the establishment of an Exchange in the District and to rely instead on the Federal Exchange for the sale of affordable health insurance."

The District said Congress purposely gave “broad flexibility” in how states can fund their exchanges under the Affordable Care Act. The Attorney General’s office also took issue with ACLI’s characterization that the tax violates the constitution because life insurers don’t directly benefit those responsible for paying them.

“The Exchange creates direct and clear benefits for carriers of supplemental insurance, which include some of the companies in ACLI’s membership, by increasing access to affordable quality health insurance for individuals and those that work for small businesses,” the District’s filing said. “Insurers of supplemental products will reap the greater benefits of loss prevention and mitigation of claims in direct way as a result of coverage of a healthier risk pool created by the exchange.”

It is not clear when Judge Howell will ultimately rule on these issues, but I’ll give updates as soon as that happens.

Tina Reed covers health care.

Washington Post: Muriel Bowser expands fundraising advantage over D.C. mayoral rivals

D.C. Politics

Muriel Bowser expands fundraising advantage over D.C. mayoral rivals

The Democratic nominee for D.C. mayor, Muriel Bowser, speaks to the media at the National Press Club in Washington on April 2. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

By Mike DeBonis August 12

Democratic mayoral nominee Muriel Bowser has expanded her fundraising advantage over her D.C. rivals, reporting Monday that she has more than $1 million in her campaign war chest with less than three months until Election Day.

According to her filing with campaign finance authorities, Bowser added 1,202 donations, totaling more than $511,000, in the past two months. They ranged from the small (157 contributions of $21) to the legal maximum (118 donations of $2,000), much of the latter coming from blue-chip corporations, real estate developers and health-care firms with business interests in the city.

Bowser, in a statement released by her campaign shortly before Monday’s midnight deadline, said her campaign is “getting stronger” as voters embrace her “positive vision for the District’s future.” The fundraising numbers were reported shortly after Bowser took home an expected but important endorsement from a city labor council.

Bowser’s bankroll gives her a more than half-million-dollar advantage over her nearest competitor, David A. Catania, a four-term member of the D.C. Council. His campaign said Monday it had added about $221,000 to its fundraising total, bringing its coffers to about $465,000 for the final months.

Ben Young, Catania’s campaign manager, said the campaign was well on its way to meeting its $1 million fundraising goal by early fall. “For a non-establishment candidate, those are impressive numbers, and those are the numbers of a winning campaign,” he said. “The establishment candidate will always have more.”

D.C. Council member David Catania, an independent mayoral candidate, meets with voters at a home in Washington last month. (Mary F. Calvert/For The Washington Post)

Carol Schwartz, a former four-term at-large council member who entered the race in June as an independent, reported cash holdings of just over $50,000. Schwartz reported lending $33,000 to her campaign, roughly half of her total receipts.

Two other mayoral candidates, independent Nestor Djonkam and Libertarian nominee Bruce Majors, reported cash balances of less than $500. A report was not available for a fifth candidate, Statehood Green nominee Faith.

In the District’s first race for attorney general, most of the five Democrats running for the seat reported a healthy bankroll — none healthier than that of Karl Racine, a white-collar defense lawyer who donated $25,000 to his own campaign and loaned it another $200,000. Twenty-six of his colleagues at the Venable law firm kicked in donations, pushing his balance above $240,000.

Edward “Smitty” Smith, a former federal government lawyer, was not nearly so reliant on his own resources, soliciting 527 donations that leave him with more than $150,000 in his coffers. Smith’s campaign took shots at Racine in a statement late Monday, calling the contest “a two-person race between the people’s advocate and the advocate of the privileged few.”

Two other candidates, lawyers Paul Zukerberg and Lorie Masters, also raised respectable sums, each gathering more than 100 donations. Zukerberg reported having just shy of $47,000 on hand, a sum boosted by his $20,000 loan to his campaign. Masters reported coffers of nearly $45,000, which includes $26,500 of her own funds. A fifth candidate, Lateefah Williams, reported raising less than $10,000.

In the crowded and wide-open race for two at-large D.C. Council seats, six of 16 candidates potentially eligible for the ballot reported bankrolls exceeding $20,000.

They are led by independent Khalid Pitts, a union organizer and restaurateur who reported having nearly $100,000 left to spend. Courtney R. Snowden, a Democratic activist now running as an independent, said in a news release Tuesday she had a bankroll of $77,000; her report had not been posted on the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance Web site as of Tuesday evening.

Robert White, a former aide to Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), has more than $46,000 in his war chest, followed by fellow independent Eric J. Jones, who drew on his ties as a construction-industry lobbyist to raise nearly $45,000 in the most recent period.

Anita Bonds — a Democratic incumbent who, if history is any guide, is assured election to one of the two open seats — made little effort to add to her bank account, which stands at $28,167. Independent Elissa Silverman spent slightly more than the nearly $30,000 she took in this period through 181 donations — more than any competitor whose report was available Monday — leaving the former news reporter and policy analyst with $20,221.

Three advisory neighborhood commissioners — Republican nominee Marc Morgan and independents Kishan Putta and Brian Hart — each reported having more than $10,000 left to spend. Five other candidates — Statehood Green nominee Eugene Puryear and independents Graylan Hagler, Michael D. Brown, Wendell Felder and Calvin Gurley — reported having lesser amounts on hand.