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Tune in to today's Technology 202 Live event in San Francisco with keynote speakers including California attorney general Xavier Becerra and TaskRabbit chief executive Stacy Brown-Philpot. The livestream begins 4 p.m. PT/7 p.m. EST. Get more details here.
Winter is over and temperatures are climbing, which means much of the country will flock outside in the coming weeks, resuming outdoor activities.
For the fledgling electric scooter industry, which is just over a year old, that means ridership is expected to rise as well.
But as its second season kicks into high gear, experts say, the multibillion-dollar industry — which has become one of the most talked about real-world technology experiments since the introduction of ride-hailing — is finding that the business landscape is rapidly shifting beneath its wheels.
The lawless, Wild West-like environment that marked summer 2018 — a period when e-scooters appeared on city streets without warning, unleashing anger, vandalism and injury in overwhelmed cities — is largely a thing of the past.
It’s being replaced by a massive wave of emerging regulatory efforts at the state and local level that are attempting to rein in the irresponsible chaos unleashed in cities such as Los Angeles, San Diego, Austin, Nashville, Portland, Ore., Atlanta and the District.
In congested urban environments, experts say, the rules will have to strike a delicate balance between imposing order and not stifling a micro-mobility movement that has been embraced by locals and alleviated gridlock.
“Electric scooters are sort of a double-edged sword,” said Gabe Klein, a transportation expert and former commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation. “On one hand, cities are very excited about small format, electric vehicles with zero emissions to cut down on people who may have taken a car before. On the other hand, they also crave order over chaos.”
In total, nearly 70 bills related to e-scooters have been introduced in 29 state legislatures in recent months, according to Douglas Shinkle, who follows transportation issues for the National Conference of State Legislatures (Mississippi and New Mexico appear to be the only states where e-scooter legislation has failed).
Most of the bills, Shinkle said, seek to regulate four things:
Speed: New limits range from 10 mph in cities such as Washington to as high as 20 mph in Kentucky.
Age of operators: The minimum age for scooter operators is typically 16, but Virginia has set the age at 14.
Location: Where scooters can be operated and parked: Most bills bar scooters from being operated on sidewalks, pushing them into streets and bike lanes or some combination.
Definition: Distinguishing scooters from automobiles, many bills make it clear that scooters are not subject to the kind of licensing and regulation required to operate a car. In most cases, governments are devising regulations that treat the devices like bicycles that require them to follow traffic laws.
“Scooters have become extremely visible and lawmakers are seeing and hearing about these things in their communities just like anybody else,” Shinkle said, noting the regulatory influx reminded him of the laws that followed the rise of companies such as Uber and Lyft. “Local and state governments are recognizing that these devices aren’t just a toy, but something that can provide a legitimate mobility option in many instances.”
—In Ohio, House Bill 62 would limit scooters to 15 mph, require lighting after dark, outlaw riders below the age of 16 and force operators to yield to pedestrians.
— In Kentucky, House Bill 258 sets operating standards for e-scooters and allows the devices to legally operate much like bicycles on public streets.
— In Georgia, House Bill 454 would prohibit scooters from being parked on sidewalks, crosswalks and intersections where they block pedestrians and other vehicles. In Decatur, where city officials have cracked down on the devices, a proposed operating agreement would require scooter companies to provide a 24-hour toll-free phone number “for members of the public to make relocation requests or to report other issues with devices.”
— In Virginia, House Bill 2752 shifts regulatory power to local governments, but requires lights, weight limits, and traffic rules on scooters.
— In Utah, a proposal on the governor’s desk would allow local authorities to require that scooter companies hand over “ride activity data.”
Noting that new technology often creates new risks, Thom Rickert, an emerging risk specialist at Trident Public Risk, compared the sudden introduction of scooters to the early — and often deadly — early years of automobiles.
“Automobiles had to operate in an environment in which they weren’t really suited — dirt roads, no speed limits, interacting with pedestrians who had no idea how quickly the machines moved, and navigating roads dominated by horses and carriages,” said Rickert, who remained adamant that e-scooters are here to stay. “In some ways we’re seeing history repeat itself.”
Because of those safety concerns, experts say, the latest influx of regulations isn’t likely to be the last. They arrive as the first chunks of data begin to emerge showing the impact e-scooters have had on safety. Experts say the picture isn’t pretty.
E-scooters have been linked to multiple deaths and numerous accident horror stories. In January, a study published in the medical journal JAMA Network Open found that far more people were injured riding scooters over a one-year period in Los Angeles than by traveling on foot and riding bicycles. In Austin — where more than 10,000 e-scooters are in operation — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is studying the health risks associated with the two-wheeled vehicles by analyzing injuries to riders and pedestrians over two months.
It’s so early that even scooter companies, who have access to reams of rider data, still don’t understand the impact their devices are having on public health, according to Emily Castor Warren, an urban transportation expert who formerly worked as the senior director of policy and public affairs at the e-scooter company Lime.
“The companies are just now starting to try to get their arms around injury rates. Reliable data is still sparse, but initial assessments and the growing number of publicly reported fatalities have raised alarm bells. That’s why cities are going to take a very close look at those numbers as well,” Warren said, adding that cities and consumer safety agencies will want to compare those numbers to other modes of transportation, such as bicycling.
“They will try to understand if e-scooters are substantially riskier and whether there are ways in which regulation can be brought to bear to address those risks.”
BITS: The Federal Trade Commission announced a probe into the privacy practices of Internet Service Providers, The Verge's Makena Kelly reports. The FTC is calling companies like AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile to turn over nonpublic information about how they handle consumers' data.
“It’s a major step toward monitoring and regulating how much data ISPs are allowed to collect on their customers, and how widely that data can be shared,” Kelly reported.
As Verizon and AT&T make major content acquisitions, there are increasingly fears that the companies could use the data they collect to power ad-targeting businesses that could compete with the likes of Google and Facebook.
“The FTC is initiating this study to better understand Internet service providers’ privacy practices in light of the evolution of telecommunications companies into vertically integrated platforms that also provide advertising-supported content,” the FTC said in a news release. “Under current law, the FTC has the ability to enforce against unfair and deceptive practices involving Internet service providers.”
NIBBLES: European Union lawmakers approved the controversial copyright directive, which will force Google and Facebook to pay publishers when they use news snippets and force them to filter out protected content, reports Foo Yun Chee of Reuters. Technology companies fiercely lobbied against the overhaul of the bloc's two decade-old copyright laws.
“The new rules mean that Google and other online platforms will have to sign licensing agreements with musicians, performers, authors, news publishers and journalists to use their work online,” Yun Chee reported. “Google’s YouTube, Facebook’s Instagram and other sharing platforms will also have to install filters to prevent users from uploading copyrighted materials.”
Andrus Ansip, The European Commission's digital chief, welcomed the outcome, saying it would benefit artists, journalists, musicians and actors. But Google said the uncertainty the new rules create would hurt Europe's digital economies.
BYTES: Palantir Technologies won a competition to build a complex intelligence system for the Army, my colleague Shane Harris reports. The deal marks a significant milestone for the tech company co-founded by Peter Thiel after it has struggled to win defense contracts.
“Industry experts said it marked the first time that the government had tapped a Silicon Valley software company, as opposed to a traditional military contractor, to lead a defense program of record, which has a dedicated line of funding from Congress,” Shane reported. “The contract is potentially worth more than $800 million.”
Traditionally, the Army chooses a company that builds a custom software system based on a detailed list of requirements. But in this case, both Palantir and Raytheon tested their software platforms with a live audience of soldiers who gave feedback to the companies to allow them to refine their product. The Army was able to “test drive” each service before selecting a winner.
“The Army changed its approach to acquisition,” Doug Philippone, a former Army Ranger who leads Palantir’s defense business, said in an interview with Shane.
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