ASEE First Bell – Breaking news in the engineering and technology field

Leading the News

Foxx Announces $4 Billion Plan For Autonomous Cars.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx’s announcement Thursday about the Obama Administration’s plan to expedite the development and adoption of autonomous vehicles received significant media coverage. Yesterday at the North American International Auto Show, Foxx announced that the Obama Administration proposes to spend nearly $4 billion over a decade to make driverless vehicles more widespread. Foxx, who was joined by NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind and executives from Google and auto companies, said the Federal government will work to remove potential hurdles to developing autonomous cars and would expedite regulatory guidelines for these vehicles. Reports heavily cite comments made by Foxx; who is quoted by several news sources, including the Wall Street Journal  (1/14, Spector, Ramsey, Subscription Publication); as saying Thursday, “We are bullish on automated vehicles.”

The AP  (1/15, Durbin) reports Foxx said Federal regulators will “fast-track policies and possibly even waive regulations” to get autonomous cars “on the road more quickly.” According to the article, Foxx said the NHTSA “will spend the next six months developing guidance” on autonomous vehicles. Additionally, the NHTSA will “develop a model policy for states,” which could eventually result in “consistent national regulations for autonomous cars,” according to the AP.

Several news reports describe Thursday’s announcement as a departure from the way the Obama Administration has handled the issue of autonomous vehicle technology. For instance, the New York Times  (1/14, B3, Vlasic, Subscription Publication) says “until now, the federal government has taken a hands-off approach to regulating” autonomous vehicles. Foxx is quoted as saying, “We are entering a new world here, and we know it.” Politico  (1/14, Caygle) reports calls Foxx’s Thursday’s announcement a “landmark moment” for the Obama Administration, which “has previously taken a go-slow approach to” autonomous vehicle technology. The article adds that “it’s also a watershed for NHTSA,” an agency that has been “regularly critiqued” over its “ability to keep up with technological changes in the automobile industry it oversees.” However, Politico says that in order to implement its “$4 billion push to get more driverless cars on the road,” the Administration “will need Congress to loosen its purse strings first, not to mention potentially enact more authority for” NHTSA.

Additionally, the Washington Post  (1/14, Halsey) reports Foxx’s announcement indicates that the Federal government plans to take an “active” role in “promoting high-tech innovations in an evolution toward” autonomous cars.

USA Today  (1/14, Snavely, Bomey) reports Foxx said President Obama’s 2017 budget proposal includes nearly “$4 billion over 10 years for pilot projects, including a program to test self-driving cars on technologically connected roads.” According to the article, Foxx said the Federal government “wants to use every tool available under current regulations” to expedite development of self-driving vehicles. The report adds that Foxx and Rosekind have “said their goal is to one day have no deaths attributable to car accidents.”

The NBC News  (1/14, Wagstaff) website points out that the plan outlined by Foxx Thursday is “part of a broader initiative announced by President Barack Obama during his State of the Union address” to create a “21st century transportation system.” Foxx is quoted as saying, “We know that 83 percent of car accidents are due to human error.” He added, “What happens if human error could be eliminated? That’s a powerful possibility, and that’s a possibility worth pursuing.” US News & World Report  (1/14, Risen) reports President Obama “will likely discuss this plan further” next Wednesday, when he visits the auto show to “applaud auto innovation and further his agenda to rebuild America’s transportation infrastructure.”

The CNN  (1/14, Marsh) website quotes Foxx as saying Thursday, “We are on the cusp of a new era in automotive technology with enormous potential to save lives, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and transform mobility for the American people” He added, “Today’s actions, and those we will pursue in the coming months, will provide the foundation and the path forward for manufacturers, state officials, and consumers to use new technologies and achieve their full safety potential.”

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times  (1/14, Masunaga) says that while Foxx highlighted the issue of safety when making his announcement Thursday, a new report from the California Department of Motor Vehicles suggests “autonomous vehicles have safety issues.” The article says companies testing autonomous cars on California roads reported several instances of “disengagements,” “moments at which the human drivers were forced to take control of the autonomous vehicles.”

However, the Detroit News  (1/14, Martinez) reports industry analysts, executives and lawmakers “applauded” Foxx’s announcement Thursday, “because it’s been widely agreed that regulation and safety standards are one of the major setbacks to developing” autonomous vehicles. After mentioning that autonomous vehicle technology is advancing at a rapid pace, CNET News  (1/14, Krok) says of Thursday’s announcement, “it’s good to see the DOT getting ahead of the curve – or, at the least, getting to the curve before manufacturers are already miles down the road.”

Detroit Bureau  (1/14, Eisenstein) mentions that the announcement Thursday “is only the first in a series of events planned for the coming weeks” that Rosekind is calling “historic.” Rosekind is expected to return to the Auto Show on Friday to “unveil a potentially precedent-setting industry government consortium,” which will “include 16 major automakers as well as the government,” the article says.

Higher Education

Former CFPB Ombudsman To Work On Student Loan Protections For ED.

Under the headline “Critic of Student Loan Industry Returns to Federal Government,” the Wall Street Journal  (1/15, Journal) reports that former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau student loan ombudsman Rohit Chopra is taking a senior position at ED. The Journal describes Chopra as a strident critic of the student loan sector and describes his sometimes acrimonious relations with student loan firms.

Inside Higher Ed  (1/14) reports that Chopra “has been critical of the Obama administration’s management of the federal student loan program,” saying he will “work on improving borrower protections and efforts to hold colleges more accountable.” The article reports Under Secretary Ted Mitchell said “Chopra would be focusing on an array of issues related to ‘enhanced protections for students, improved borrowers’ service and strong accountability for institutions.’” Noting that Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren “has sparred with the Obama administration over a range of student loan issues,” the piece says she “said on Twitter Wednesday that Acting Education Secretary John King ‘hit a home run by asking Rohit Chopra to help fix our broken student loan system.’”

The Street  (1/15, Sandman) calls Chopra “a withering critic of the Obama administration’s federal student loan program,” and calls ED’s hiring of him “what appears to be a renewed attempt to hold colleges more accountable for the taxpayer dollars they receive.” The piece says that he “seems to be stepping into a newly created position,” and quotes Mitchell saying he will be working on “enhanced protections for students, improved borrowers’ service and strong accountability for institutions. … Rohit’s experience in protecting borrowers and his expertise in financial services policy will advance and deepen that work.”

Murray Introduces Bill To Help Homeless, Foster Youth Apply For College.

Diverse Education  (1/15, Abdul-Alim) reports on the plight of college students who grew up in the foster care system or homeless and therefore lack many of the financial supports enjoyed by students from traditional families. To help deal with this obstacle, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) has introduced legislation called the Higher Education Access and Success for Homeless and Foster Youth Act, which “would alleviate a series of burdens that homeless and foster youth experience when they perform perfunctory tasks” like filling out FAFSA forms “that are already considered difficult, even for young people who haven’t experienced homelessness or foster care.”

Candidates For Harvard’s Board Of Overseers Call For End To Tuition.

The New York Times  (1/15, Saul, Subscription Publication) reports that “a slate of candidates running for the Board of Overseers at Harvard,” is calling for eliminating undergraduate tuition. They also are arguing that if tuition were ended, “the university would no longer have trouble balancing its class for racial or ethnic diversity.” The slate includes Ralph Nader, but was “put together by Ron Unz,” and the “other three candidates have written or testified extensively against affirmative action.” Unz and the slate are also calling for the release of more admissions data from the university. The university argues that the endowment is made up of many funds, most of which are directed to specific activities and are not available for general use.

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Research and Development

University Of Texas Researchers Devising “Self-Healing” Gel For Electronics.

The Austin (TX) American Statesman  (1/15, Subscription Publication) reports that researchers at the University of Texas working on the periphery of “the scramble to invent the battery of the future” have “focused on finding new materials for the parts that conduct the juice.” The research team led by Guihua Yu “focused on goo: a ‘self-healing’ gel that could hold together the electrodes that tend to crack in next-generation batteries as they charge.” The piece reports that the breakthrough could impact smart phones and electric cars. The technology could result in “phone batteries that could fix themselves; workout shirts with “biosensors” that could monitor someone’s heart rate; even, as a KUT report on Yu’s work noted, robots that could heal themselves when damaged.”

Aerojet Rocketdyne Develops Trash-Powered Portable Generator.

The Sacramento (CA) Business Journal  (1/14, Subscription Publication) reports that Aerojet Rocketdyne has field-tested “a small portable generator that can use ordinary surplus items to make electricity in remote locations for the military.” The technology was developed with an Office of Naval Research grant “to find ways to supply electricity to troops deployed to forward positions. The military increasingly relies on computers and electronic equipment, which means soldiers need access to electricity.”

Research Describes New Way To Photograph Megaenzymes Used In Antibiotics.

STAT  (1/14) reports that new research published  in the journal Nature describes “a way to take live snapshots” of megaenzymes used in creating antibiotics as they move quickly. The article also includes a brief Q&A interview with McGill University biochemist Martin Schmeing, the study’s lead author. Schmeing said, “If we can mess around with the enzyme, we can maybe get it to make a new, modified antibiotics,” adding, “The dream is to take the way these proteins make the compounds and be able to bioengineer them ourselves.”

CableLabs Certifies New High-Speed Modems.

Ars Technica  (1/15, Brodkin) reports that CableLabs, “the cable industry’s research and development lab,” has certified version 3.1 DOCSIS (the Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification) modems that reduce “network latency” and could be helpful in operating “high-speed applications including Virtual and Augmented Reality, advanced video technologies such as Ultra High Definition 4K television.” Ars Notes that Comcast will offer “1Gbps download speeds and lower upload speeds over existing cable,” through DOCSIS 3.1 modems, and adds DOCSIS 3.1 technology will “eventually scale up to 10Gbps download and 1Gbps upload.”

Workforce

Percentage Of Immigrants Working In Science, Engineering Rising.

The Kansas City (MO) infoZine  (1/15) reports that according to a new report from the National Science Foundation’s National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, immigrants now made up 18% of the US science and engineering workforce in 2013, up from 16% the previous year. The report breaks down the percentage of US immigrant scientists and engineers by their immigration status, and by where they were born.

Congress Could Probe Program To Compensate Nuclear-Weapons Workers.

McClatchy  (1/15, Hotakainen, Wise, Matt) reports on “pressure” for Congress to investigate the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program, a $12 billion program intended to help the “tens of thousands of sick nuclear-weapons workers.” McClatchy adds that there are 107,394 workers who have been seeking compensation, while payments have been made to “more than 53,000 sickened or dead workers.” McClatchy also found that 7,762 who sought compensation died before receiving any.

Engineering and Public Policy

Advisory Panel Criticizes NASA Safety Practices.

The Wall Street Journal  (1/15, Pasztor, Subscription Publication) reports that in annual review released earlier this week, the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), a leading external advisory committee for NASA, concluded that the space agency’s plans to use commercial space flights to launch astronauts into orbit are behind schedule and potentially pose greater safety risks than initially expected. In the report, the advisory group states that certification challenges for commercial spacecraft suggest that “there is a high likelihood of delays to the first test flights,” continuing, “The process is behind relative to desired timelines for meeting 2017 launch dates.” Additionally, the report says that analyses of current rocket and vehicle designs suggest that they fail to meet the minimum NASA safety standard of one potential fatal spacecraft accident per 270 flights. The report also highlights eight distinct safety issues across various NASA programs, and concludes that there has been “a continuing and unacknowledged accretion of risk” at NASA, which may “significantly impact crew safety and the safe execution of human space missions.”

The Verge  (1/15) adds that “the report paints a pretty grim picture of NASA’s safety protocols, claiming that tight funding and intense scheduling pressures are leading to an ‘accretion of risk’ that no one at NASA seems to be talking about.” According to ASAP, the desire launch to send Space Launch System rocket into orbit as soon as possible has led to workers missing or overlooking important details that could result in eventual failures. In particular, the advisory committee stated, “While the programs appear to recognize and accept risk growth in many individual situations, we are not convinced that NASA recognizes or clearly communicates the aggregated impact of individually accepted component risks.” Moreover, according to the report, “The ASAP observed another tendency or trend in working with the commercial providers… The providers were doing the “right thing” from engineering and safety standpoints, [but] the formality or ‘paperwork’ aspects were frequently missing or perfunctorily accomplished.”

Sources: Administration To Overhaul Coal Mining On Federal Land.

The Washington Post  (1/15, Warrick) reports the Administration is expected today to announce “sweeping changes in the way federally owned coal is mined and sold in the United States,” according to sources familiar with the plan. Among the changes is also “a moratorium on some new coal leases and a review of how taxpayers are compensated for coal taken from government lands.” Reuters  (1/14, Volcovici, Rucker) reports the plan will also require federal officials weighing land use decisions to consider how mining and burning coal adds to greenhouse gas pollution.

The New York Times  (1/15, Davenport, Subscription Publication) says the move will “represent a significant setback for the coal industry” by almost “freezing new coal production on federal lands and sending a signal to energy markets that could turn investors away from an already flailing industry.”

Moniz: US To Spend $220 Million To Upgrade Electric Grid.

The Hill  (1/14, Henry) reported Energy Secretary Moniz on Thursday announced the US will spend $220 million to upgrade the American electric grid, “saying the funding would help advance grid research at the agency’s national laboratories and private-sector partners.” Moniz said in a statement, “This public-private partnership…will help us further strengthen our ongoing efforts to improve our electrical infrastructure so that it is prepared to respond to the nation’s energy needs for decades to come.” Moniz added that “modernizing” the grid is necessary to reduce carbon emissions and protect against attacks against the infrastructure.

The Miami Herald  (1/15, Miller) reports Moniz made the announcement following a tour of Florida Power & Light facilities in Miami. Moniz “emphasized that FPL – which serves about half of Florida – stands out in its innovations to strengthen its grid.” He stated, “FPL really is on the cutting edge of addressing a grid for the 21st century and particularly in the area of resilience. … It’s really what we need.” The Miami Herald  (1/15) website also carries video of Moniz’s tour of FPL’s facilities.

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review  (1/15) reports the National Energy Technology Laboratory “is leading a $4 million project involving Carnegie Mellon University and other partners that will focus on developing magnetic alloys and semiconductors for connecting solar panels and storage batteries to the grid.” The effort is “one of 88 projects funded by $220 million that Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz announced on Thursday as part of his department’s grid modernization initiative.” DOE Undersecretary for Science and Energy Lynn Orr said, “Our grid is an absolutely essential underpinning to an efficient operating of the economy.”

Atomic City Underground  (1/14) reports that Oak Ridge National Laboratory will be involved in more than 24 projects funded by the $220 million over three years from DOE’s Grid Modernization Initiative. According to ORNL spokeswoman Morgan McCorkle, the lab will receive about $22 million over the three years engaged in areas such as “measurement and controls, modeling and analysis, grid security, systems integration, and transformer research, analysis and testing.”

E&E Publishing  (1/14, Marshall) also covers this story.

Elementary/Secondary Education

California School District Wants To Expand Career And Technical Education.

The Hanford (CA) Sentinel  (1/15, Brown) reports the Hanford Joint Union High School District has applied for a $1.2 million grant from the California Career Technical Education Incentive Grant Program with the aim of expanding their career and technical education classes. The state grant program was created in 2015, and Hanford Special Programs Director Janice L. Ede spoke about the district’s plans if their application is approved at a recent school board meeting. Ede says the grant could allow the district to offer more classes preparing students for “success in college and careers by helping them develop the skills, technical knowledge, academic rigor and real-world experience” they need.

UK Kids Compete In Lego Robotics Tournament.

Mid Sussex Times (UK)  (1/14) reports local students from Sussex, England competed in a FIRST Lego League robotics tournament hosted at the University of Brighton. Student teams had to program a Lego Mindstorm robot to complete tasks and solve problems.

Pennsylvania School District Improving STEAM Education.

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review  (1/15, Hacke) reports Brentwood Borough School District’s “Creative Cadre” is working to improve STEAM education in the district’s schools near Pittsburgh. The group of teachers was organized over a year ago and has launched the “Imagination Station 4 Innovation”, a program where elementary school students use leftover materials to build things. Moore Elementary School students are learning about STEAM principles and skills by building miniature houses with “automated doors, clap-on lights and remote-controlled fans.”

UC Berkeley Professor Expanding Computer Science Education.

On its website, NPR  (1/14) details the efforts of University of California Berkeley Professor Dan Garcia to expand the reach of computer science education. Professor Garcia has developed a popular MOOC on computer science designed for people without a computer science background and he is currently working with the New York City school district to design an AP course in computer science for high school students. The article quotes Garcia speaking about the importance of increasing diversity in the tech sector and among computer science teachers. The article mentions that President Obama spoke about expanding computer science education to a wider audience during his State of the Union address earlier this week.

Thursday’s Lead Stories

Obama Pushes Transition From “Dirty Energy.”
Former CFPB Student Loan Ombudsman Chopra Joining ED.
Schneider Electric Promises Battery At Lower Cost Than Tesla.
Alberta Regulators Halt Fracking Operations After Earthquake.
IT Security Firm Finds 84 Percent Of Health Apps Vulnerable To Common Hacking Methods.
Amtrak Installs Positive Train Control In Northeast Corridor.
College In Southern Utah Hosts Lego Robotics Tournament For Children.

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