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Senate bill to clear obstacles to self-driving cars advances

Published: Wednesday, October 04, 2017 @ 4:56 AM
Updated: Wednesday, October 04, 2017 @ 4:55 AM


            FILE - In this May 13, 2015, file photo, Google's self-driving Lexus car drives along street during a demonstration at Google campus in Mountain View, Calif. A Senate panel plans to take up a bill Oct. 4, 2017, intended to clear away obstacles to a new era in which cars drive themselves. Safety advocates said it would give automakers free reign to put unsafe vehicles on the road. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar, File)
FILE - In this May 13, 2015, file photo, Google's self-driving Lexus car drives along street during a demonstration at Google campus in Mountain View, Calif. A Senate panel plans to take up a bill Oct. 4, 2017, intended to clear away obstacles to a new era in which cars drive themselves. Safety advocates said it would give automakers free reign to put unsafe vehicles on the road. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar, File)

Legislation that could help usher in a new era of self-driving cars advanced in Congress on Wednesday after the bill's sponsors agreed to compromises to address some concerns of safety advocates.

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved the bill by a voice vote, a sign of broad, bipartisan support. It would allow automakers to apply for exemptions to current federal auto safety standards in order to sell up to 15,000 self-driving cars and light trucks per manufacturer in the first year after passage. Up to 40,000 per manufacturer could be sold in the second year, and 80,000 each year thereafter.

Action by the full Senate is still needed and differences with a similar bill passed by the House would have to be worked out before the measure could become law.

The bill initially would have allowed manufacturers to sell up to 100,000 self-driving vehicles a year, but that number was reduced in last-minute negotiations. In another change, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would evaluate the safety performance of the vehicles before increasing the number of vehicles manufacturers can sell.

Supporters of the bill, which was sought by the auto industry, say it would be a boon to safety since an estimated 94 percent of crashes involve human error. They say it would also help the disabled.

The bill "is primarily about saving lives," but it will also increase U.S. international competitiveness and create jobs, said Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan.

Safety advocates said the bill has been significantly improved, but they still have serious concerns. Joan Claybrook, a NHTSA administrator under President Jimmy Carter, said the bill is one of the "biggest assaults" ever on the landmark 1966 law that empowered the federal government to set auto safety standards because it permits such large and unprecedented number of exemptions to those standards.

Automakers are "making guinea pigs out of their car buyers," she said.

Under the bill, the NHTSA would have 180 days after an application in which to grant or deny the exemption. Manufacturers must show that they can provide an equivalent of safety. Safety advocates say six months isn't enough time for an agency that is undermanned and lacks expertise in self-driving technology to effectively make such determinations.

The bill is broad enough to permit exemptions to standards that protect occupants in a crash, like air bags, safety advocates said.

There are no federal safety standards for many of the technologies at the heart of self-driving cars, like software and sensors, and there is no sign that the Trump administration would create such standards. Administration and auto and technology industry officials suggest that new regulations would be unable to keep up with rapid developments in technology and would slow deployment of self-driving cars.

The bill pre-empts state and local governments from enacting their own safety standards in the absence of federal standards. Industry officials have complained that being forced to comply with a patchwork of state safety laws would be unmanageable. But another compromise made to the bill allows states to continue their traditional roles of licensing vehicles and regulating auto insurance even if their actions affect the design of vehicles. Wrongful death lawsuits against manufacturers would also be allowed in states that permit them.

Automakers have experienced the largest number of recalls for safety defects in the industry's history in recent years. General Motors, for example, was found to have buried evidence of an ignition switch defect that ultimately caused the recall of 2.6 million small cars worldwide. The switches played a role in at least 124 deaths and 275 injuries.

Also, about 70 million defective Takata air bag inflators are being recalled in the U.S. The inflators are responsible for up to 19 deaths worldwide and more than 180 injures.

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AP Auto Writer Tom Krisher contributed to this report from Detroit.

Police: Washington State mother under investigation for infant's death

Published: Sunday, December 17, 2017 @ 5:51 AM

Kent Police Department.
Kent Police Department
Kent Police Department.(Kent Police Department)

A 24-year-old Washington State woman is under investigation for homicide and reckless care that caused the death of her infant son, Kent Police said late Saturday.

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Medics were called on Dec. 12 after the 2-month old baby was found unresponsive, police said. 

Police said the mother placed the child on his stomach on top of a sleeping bag and left him unattended for at least 20 minutes while she watched television in another room.

When the mother returned, she found the child unresponsive and not breathing.

A GoFundMe page has been set up for the child's memorial fund. Click here to view. 

CSX railroad chief Hunter Harrison dies

Published: Sunday, December 17, 2017 @ 4:55 AM

Hunter Harrison was the CEO of the Florida-based CSX railroad company.
Associated Press file photo
Hunter Harrison was the CEO of the Florida-based CSX railroad company.(Associated Press file photo)

Hunter Harrison, the president and CEO of railroad giant CSX, died Saturday in Florida. He was 73.

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CSX confirmed Harrison’s death in a statement, saying it was caused by “unexpectedly severe complications” from a recent illness. His death comes only a couple of days after the company announced he was taking an unplanned medical leave of absence.

“Hunter was a larger-than-life figure who brought his remarkable passion, experience and energy in railroading to CSX,” the company said in a statement.

Harrison was hired by Florida-based CSX in March under shareholder pressure. But recently there had been concerns about his health. The Wall Street Journal reported in May that Harrison often worked from his Wellington home and occasionally required portable oxygen.

Harrison, a member of the Wellington horse set, lived in a 9,200-square-foot mansion at Palm Beach Polo & Country Club, according to property records. He paid $4 million for the property in 2008.

The property now is held in the name of Harrison’s wife, Jeannie Harrison. They have a homestead exemption.

And the Harrison family’s Double H Farm owns a 22-acre property in Wellington.

Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Harrison was a long-time railroad executive who made his career turning around railroads.

“With the passing of Hunter Harrison, CSX has suffered a major loss. Notwithstanding that loss, the Board is confident that Jim Foote, as acting Chief Executive Officer, and the rest of the CSX team will capitalize on the changes that Hunter has made,” Edward J. Kelly III, Chairman of the CSX Board of Directors, said.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

Family given house after losing their home in fire

Published: Sunday, December 17, 2017 @ 3:27 AM

File photo.  (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)
Scott Barbour/Getty Images
File photo. (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)(Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

A family whose house burned, during which the father also suffered burns while saving his son and sister from the flames, were gifted a new house Saturday.

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Ronald Warren Williamson III suffered third-degree burns in the November fire, according to WTVG

The family received enough votes through a real estate company contest which gave a house to the winner.

"We're just very fortunate for everybody in the community for the way they've all come together," mother Stacey Kennedy told WTVG. "It's just amazing."

WWE's Vince McMahon to give football another shot, may bring back XFL

Published: Sunday, December 17, 2017 @ 1:26 AM

12 Jul 2000: Vince McMahon talks during the XFL Press Conference at the House of Blues in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Tom Hauck  / Allsport via Getty Images)
Tom Hauck/Getty Images
12 Jul 2000: Vince McMahon talks during the XFL Press Conference at the House of Blues in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Tom Hauck / Allsport via Getty Images)(Tom Hauck/Getty Images)

Vince McMahon, owner and creative head of World Wrestling Entertainment, is preparing a new professional football league.

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McMahon started the XFL in 2001, splitting ownership with NBC. The league debuted to massive ratings and hype, with commercials promising a harder hitting brand of football and sexier cheerleaders. But the quality of play suffered greatly from the lack of preparation time for players, as well as the lack of big-name players from the NFL or college, and led to the league lasting only one season.

The story was first told by writer Brad Shepard on Twitter. Wrestling writer David Bixenspan later contacted WWE, which confirmed McMahon has established a new corporation called Alpha Entertainment. 

Bixenspan also reported McMahon had reacquired trademarks for the XFL shortly after ESPN aired a documentary on the league earlier in 2017. Whether McMahon’s league would be called the XFL is unknown.

The Washington Post wrote McMahon’s interest in a return to football was fueled by his participation in the ESPN documentary. Despite the league costing NBC and WWE $35 million in 2001, McMahon tried to find another channel for the league after NBC canceled it and only shut the league down after he was unable to find a television deal.

The XFL branded itself as a harder hitting and sexier version of pro football, and the NFL had become less physical. The marketing campaign behind the league’s debut was one of the most hyped in history and included professional wrestlers from the WWE. 

The timing of McMahon opening a new league could be due to the NFL’s ratings struggles and complaints about the league’s style of play after new rules have restricted how players tackle. National Anthem protests by players in the NFL have been controversial. Media outlets have differed on whether the protests have affected ratings. 

Players and owners were also targeted by President Donald Trump while he was campaigning during the Alabama Senate race. Vince McMahon’s wife Linda, a former WWE president, is a member of President Trump’s cabinet and head of the Small Business Administration.