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Autonomous vehicles are driving the buzz at CES this week — but this year, companies are touting their commitment to safety and public education after fatal crashes increased policymakers’ worries about the nascent technology.

“Events like that have highlighted the need to have a dialogue about safety,” said Jack Weast, who leads autonomous vehicle standards at Intel’s Mobileye division. Weast plans to discuss the company’s technical safety standards, which have been adopted at other companies such as Chinese tech giant Baidu, during a panel at the Las Vegas trade show later today.

Weast says companies have not always shared best practices for car safety with each other in efforts to edge out competitors. After all, safety is one of the main factors consumers consider when buying cars. But with autonomous cars, Weast says, that decades-old way of thinking has to end. 

“When it comes to decision-making and the ability to drive safe from an autonomous vehicle, that should no longer be proprietary information,” he said.

At the same time, companies including Intel, Waymo and Daimler, are teaming up to educate the public and policymakers about self-driving cars through a new industry coalition.

The effort by self-driving car companies to steer the conversation to safety and transparency comes as Congress gears up to take on the issue.

Lawmakers are expected to introduce legislation that would create a national framework for regulating autonomous vehicles, which could help companies roll out the technology across the country faster -- and avoid a patchwork of state and local rules. But safety is sure going to be a key point of contention. Close observers expect the debate to focus on how tough the standards should be and how they should be enforced -- and to include sunset provisions to allow Congress to revisit the issue as they learn more about how autonomous vehicles work. 

Federal legislation came close to passing last year, but key Senate Democrats opposed the industry-backed bill because it was not tough enough on consumer protections. As my colleague Ashley Halsey III reported in December, Senate Democrats said the AV START Act needed more provisions to ensure the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would actually be able to enforce safety, cybersecurity and privacy protections.

Now, “they have to start from scratch,” said David Logsdon, who leads advocacy for emerging technologies at the technology trade association CompTIA and pushed for the failed bill.

With Democrats now in control the House, the fight could get even more pitched. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who co-sponsored the House version of the legislation that passed in 2017, said in a statement last year that the Senate version of the bill “fell woefully short” on passenger safety and data security. Shakowsky previously served as the top Democrat on the House Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection Subcommittee, but her spokesman said he couldn't comment on her plans for the bill yet. 

“We need to act carefully — working with consumer advocates and industry representatives — and take the time needed to get it right,” Schakowsky said in December.

Consumer safety advocates who opposed the AV START Act are supportive of the Democrats' slower approach. Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, remains optimistic that it’s an area where lawmakers can find bipartisan consensus, even in a divided Congress.

“Everyone cares about safety,” she said. 

Autonomous vehicle companies also have to convince consumers, who are largely wary of the technology, they're up to the task of designing and building safe self-driving cars. Even before the fatal crash of an Uber autonomous vehicle in Arizona last year, Pew  Research Center reported more than half of Americans were worried or somewhat worried about self-driving vehicles and would not want to ride in one. 

That trepidation may be impacting companies' plays at CES, too. While the conference has been a place where techies evangelize the near future of a world where cars exist without steering wheels or gas pedals, companies such as Toyota and Intel this year touted how the same artificial intelligence and chip technology could power technology now that would help human drivers avoid collisions or brake in an emergency situation.

“This could get consumers more comfortable with the technology,” Weast said.


BITS: Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are increasingly consulting with outside groups that lean to the right as the companies grapple with banning some users or removing content, according to the Wall Street Journal's Kirsten Grind and John D. McKinnon. Social media giants also solicit advice from left-leaning groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups. 

Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey has hosted dinners with conservatives including Grover Norquist, founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform, and sought advice from the conservative activist Ali Akbar when the company considered whether to ban conspiracy theorist Alex Jones from its platform, the Journal reported. Facebook has privately solicited input from the Family Research Council.

Klon Kitchen, who leads tech policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation, which has developed a relationship with Facebook, told the social network that it won't be able to get rid of the difficulties arising from the content that it decides to ban or allow. “These are problems you manage, not problems you solve,” Kitchen told the Journal.

NIBBLES: As T-Mobile, Sprint and AT&T sell their customers' location information to third parties, that data can eventually reach the hands of bounty hunters and others, allowing them to track Americans' whereabouts, Motherboard's Joseph Cox reported. Motherboard was able to track the location of a T-Mobile user — who consented to the experiment — by giving the person's cellphone number to a bounty hunter.

Here is one example of how the data can travel through several companies: T-Mobile shares users' location with Zumigo, a collection aggregator; Zumigo then sells the data to another company called Microbilt. “Microbilt shared that data with a customer using its mobile phone tracking product,” Cox reported. “The bounty hunter then shared this information with a bail industry source, who shared it with Motherboard.” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) scolded telecommunications companies for selling location information of their users. “Wireless carriers’ continued sale of location data is a nightmare for national security and the personal safety of anyone with a phone,” Wyden told Motherboard.

BYTES: The CES show isn't just for tech firms. The Las Vegas exhibition is also attracting more traditional companies such as John Deere, Procter & Gamble and Harley-Davidson, the Associated Press's Matt O'Brien and Joseph Pisani reported. “Every company today is a technology company,” Gary Shapiro, chief executive of the Consumer Technology Association, which organizes the show, told the AP.

Harley-Davidson is set to announce the commercial launch of LiveWire, its first electric motorcycle, during the event. Procter & Gamble will present a toothbrush with artificial intelligence capabilities and a scalp adviser that's connected to the Internet, the AP reported.

Dipanjan Chatterjee, brand analyst at Forrester Research, said consumers increasingly expect personal experiences instead of just buying items. “We’re still doing old-fashioned things: Ordering clothes, buying detergent, getting a cup of coffee, but there are newfangled ways of doing it,” Chatterjee said, as quoted by the AP. “Brands have no choice but to play a role in this new technology space.”


— Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said he will hold “public discussions about the future of technology in society” this year, my colleague Tony Romm reported. “I'm an engineer, and I used to just build out my ideas and hope they'd mostly speak for themselves,” Zuckerberg said in a post on his Facebook page. “But given the importance of what we do, that doesn't cut it anymore. So I'm going to put myself out there more than I've been comfortable with and engage more in some of these debates about the future, the tradeoffs we face, and where we want to go.”

— Several former employees of Facebook compared the company's culture to a “cult” where staffers feel pressure to give the social network more importance than anything else in their lives, CNBC's Salvador Rodriguez reported. Many former staffers also said that such culture played a role in the litany of controversies surrounding privacy and disinformation that have plagued the tech giant in the past two years.

“Many former employees blamed the cult-like atmosphere partly on Facebook's performance review system, which requires employees to get reviews from approximately five of their peers twice a year,” Rodriguez wrote. “This peer review system pressures employees to forge friendships with colleagues at every possible opportunity, whether it be going to lunch together each day or hanging out after work.”

— Apple chief executive Tim Cook expressed optimism about trade negotiations between the United States and China, CNBC’s Elizabeth Gurdus reported. “It is a very complex trade agreement and it needs to be updated, but as I've said before, I'm very optimistic that this will happen,” Cook said in an interview with CNBC’s Jim Cramer. “That clearly will be good not only for us, frankly, but I think more about the world in general. The world needs a strong U.S. and China economy for the world economy to be strong.”

— As iPhone prices have continued to climb in recent years, Apple hopes that American consumers will buy new devices by trading in their older phones for a creditaccording to the Wall Street Journal's Sarah Krouse. “Apple, which rarely discounts its products, has recently used the trade-in program to incentivize purchases, sweetening offers late last year with an additional $100 credit,” the Journal reported. “The company also has been more aggressive in its marketing of the program, promoting the iPhone XR on its website and in emails to customers at a price of $449 with trade-in of an older phone rather than at its starting retail price of $749.”

— Amazon withdrew dozens of goods from its marketplace following complaints about items such as doormats and bathmats that featured Koran verses and were offensive to Muslims, The Washington Post's Hamza Shaban reported. “The items were first flagged to the online retailer by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group,” my colleague reported. “CAIR said it received complaints about the items from members of the community, leading the group to alert Amazon.” (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Post.)

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— LinkedIn censored the profile of Peter Humphrey, a critic of Chinese authorities, for users in China, BuzzFeed News's Megha Rajagopalan reported. LinkedIn restored Humphrey's profile this week following an inquiry from BuzzFeed News. “Asked why Humphrey's profile had been removed in China, Nicole Leverich, a spokesperson for LinkedIn, said an internal review found the profile was ‘blocked in error,’” Rajagopalan reported. The company had told Humphrey in December that it had censored his LinkedIn page in China.

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