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Dialing Down the Hype on Driverless Cars

Driverless backup: Lawrence Ulrich of The New York Times explains how we may be tapping the brakes on the any-day-now dream of driverless cars. Driver-assistance technology is becoming more common. Major carmakers have pledged to make automated emergency braking standard on all vehicles by 2022, for example. But technical challenges and state regulations, plus the general unease of consumers, make full automation a farther reach, despite what Elon Musk may say. “We’ve tried to turn down the hype and make people understand how hard this is,” said Gill Pratt, director of the Toyota Research Institute. “A growing consensus holds that driver-free transport will begin with a trickle, not a flood,” Ulrich writes. And Christopher Mims of The Wall Street Journal explores a fascinating paradox: Those automated components are making human-driven cars safer, which could ultimately delay the rollout of driverless cars by making it harder for them to compete on safety. “These new systems marry the best machines capabilities—360-degree sensing and millisecond reflexes—with the best of the human brain, such as our ability to come up with novel solutions to unique problems,” he writes.

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Beyond (or within) the plastic bag: If you, like me, have written to your local grocery chain (more than once, in my case) to complain about the fact that they wrap every individual cucumber in plastic, this story offers validation. It also may compound the rage you feel over lemons in plastic netting. The Guardian, as part of its just-launched “United States of Plastic” series, shopped at five New York City grocery stores to take an informal survey of the plastic packaging used. What they found is absurd: Individual salmon filets wrapped in plastic then bagged in plastic in the freezer aisle at Whole Foods. Butternut squash sold individually in plastic netting at H-Mart. Husked corn and boiled eggs wrapped in plastic, and endless tubs of salad greens in plastic clamshells. “In many cases, the plastic was not recyclable,” Jessica Glenza writes. “But even if it could be, history proves it probably won’t be: only 9% of the plastic ever produced has been recycled.”

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‘As desperate as we are’: Eli Saslow in The Washington Post tells the story of Lisa and Stevie Crider – poor, living in rural Tennessee and desperately lacking in medical attention. In searing detail, he illustrates a difficult truth facing millions of people like them: “The federal government now estimates that a record 50 million rural Americans live in what it calls ‘health care shortage areas,’ where the number of hospitals, family doctors, surgeons and paramedics has declined to 20-year lows.”

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A ‘terrible smell’: Dozens of people pruning and tying grape vines were doused with an insecticide  when winds blew the chemical into the vineyard in Central California from an orchard where it was being applied by a truck with a spray rig. Two of the 63 people exposed were taken to a hospital with moderate to severe symptoms, including vomiting, the Visalia Times Delta reports. All went through a showering and decontamination process with emergency responders. The pesticide, Hexythiazox, has not been linked to adverse effects in epidemiological studies but is classified as a possible human carcinogen.

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Peer-reviewed and under wraps: The Trump administration has buried the work of government scientists demonstrating how the climate crisis is changing agriculture, and in some cases it has tried to block outside researchers and their universities from talking about their own work, Helena Bottemiller Evich of Politico reports. She identified dozens of studies that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has refused to publicize, despite a longstanding practice of promoting its research for the education of farmers and consumers. Among them are studies that found the allergy season already may be getting worse across the northern hemisphere and that rice loses nutritional value in a carbon-rich environment. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue declined to comment for the story. He has previously expressed skepticism about climate science–and about the work of scientists in general. Several Senate Democrats responded with criticism.

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A question of influence: Public health experts have reacted in anger to news that the historically black Meharry Medical College accepted a $7.5 million grant from Juul Labs to study health issues affecting African Americans, including use of tobacco and e-cigarettes, Sheila Kaplan of The New York Times reports. Juul is the largest producer of e-cigarettes and is partly owned by Altria, the largest U.S. cigarette maker. Meharry officials say they approached Juul for support of the school’s research, and that scientist will work without direct influence from the company. But public health leaders were skeptical, given the history of cigarette companies targeting African American customers and working for decades to hide the risks of tobacco from consumers at large. “Juul doesn’t have African-Americans’ best interests in mind,” LaTroya Hester, a spokeswoman for the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network, told The Times. “The truth is that Juul is a tobacco product, not much unlike its demon predecessors.”

  • Also: Juul bought a 28-story office tower to become its headquarters last week in San Francisco. On the same day the company announced its purchase, the board of supervisors took a preliminary vote to make San Francisco the first city to ban e-cigarette sales, distribution and manufacturing, CBS News reports. The board is expected to finalize its decision this week.

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‘Overly speculative’: A White House directive gives federal agencies broad latitude to ignore the long-term climate impacts of a project under review, unless “a sufficiently close causal relationship exists” between the project and an increase in carbon emissions, Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post reports. The chairman of the White House council that issued the guidance said it would speed infrastructure projects, making their review “more efficient, timely and effective.” Critics said it may not survive a court challenge and will minimize accounting for climate impacts that will affect Americans.

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Personal data on the loose: Vermont has tried to return to its residents some power over how their personal data is collected and sold among big data brokers. Doing so has proven difficult, Douglas MacMillan of The Washington Post reports. The state passed a law last year requiring all companies that buy and sell data on Vermont residents to register with the state and provide information about how they do business. “Dozens of firms registered,” MacMillan writes, “but few offered clear answers about what they do with data and whether users may remove themselves from databases.” He offers some tips for keeping your data to yourself.

Chelsea Conaboy is a FairWarning contributor and freelance writer and editor specializing in health care. Find more of her work at chelseaconaboy.com.