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Autonomous vehicles make congestion pricing even more critical – TechCrunch

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Autonomous vehicles will soon be ubiquitous on city streets. Before this happens, we should ask ourselves: Will they whisk us quickly through cities or make traffic worse?

A car is a car, whether self-driving or people driven—taking up a great deal more space than busses, streetcars, or trains—so let’s make sure the cost is right. Traffic has already increased in many cities due to widespread ride-hailing. Once Uber further rolls out autonomous vehicle fleets, calling a car will be cheaper, more competitive—and a potential burden on our streets.

A new study by UC Santa Cruz Professor Adam Millard-Ball in the Journal of Transportation Policy makes a convincing case that self-driving cars will dramatically increase traffic further. Millard-Ball forecasts that the number of cars on the street could grow exponentially as more people are able to take their hands off the steering wheel and just sit back and ride.

Furthermore, when not in use, autonomous vehicles need to go somewhere. There are three options: go back home, park somewhere, or circle around. Most likely, these cars will endlessly circle the streets rather than parking and paying fees.

The rise in ride-hailing speaks to the need to think about congestion pricing — even more so in light of autonomous vehicles potentially circling the city aimlessly in the years to come — in more dynamic terms.

Image courtesy of Getty Images

Existing congestion pricing schemes work a few different ways. Most programs either identify a core part of the city or specific zones within the city to institute a flat or variable rate fee on vehicles that drive into the specified areas. The systems monitor compliance through gantry and camera systems that record license plates, or some version of transponders in vehicles. All congestion pricing systems attach a price to road usage.

Particularly, variable pricing that captures usage throughout the city could lead to different decision-making by autonomous vehicles. Rather than ghosting through the streets waiting to pick up passengers, these cars could instead choose to park in either the core of the city or on the periphery, helping to unclog streets rather than adding to traffic.

Variable pricing increases as traffic increases, thereby pushing some drivers—or in the future self-driving vehicles—off the road and making cars glide more smoothly. In the US, we are most familiar with variable tolling schemes implemented on highways, but congestion pricing systems like those in Singapore and Stockholm include a variable nature to them throughout the congestion zone.

Image courtesy of Getty Images

Congestion pricing could directly counteract an increase in vehicle usage, and ensure self-driving cars pay full freight for the impact they create. New York City will be implementing a congestion zone starting in 2021 that will affect all drivers south of 60th Street entering Manhattan. While the final structure is still to be determined, experts say it could bring in more than $1 billion a year to support public transit upgrades.

Across the pond, London’s policy — first implemented in 2003 — covers a core eight mile square zone and currently costs around $15. From 2002 to 2014, private cars entering the central zone dropped 39%. However, with the rapid increase in ride-hailing brought about by Uber and other companies, congestion has again increased.

In the Washington, D.C., and LA regions, variable pricing — just not in a downtown congestion zone — already provides highway drivers with the option to pay to drive in a free-flowing lane. The cost to consumers is anything but free, because the cost must line up with demand to keep traffic moving. In the Washington, D.C., region, the charges to drive from the city from far-out suburbs peaked near $40. But that was what it cost to keep traffic moving.

Singapore, on the other hand, extends this logic to the core of its city with its congestion pricing model. The city has over 50 points within the designated area in and around the central business district, and each of these points charges between $0 – $3, depending on the time of day and traffic conditions. Stockholm follows a similar logic to Singapore’s system with a total cap of around $11.30 per vehicle per day.

Good, responsive public policy can help us make the right choices. Congestion pricing can serve as a market-based regulator that gets the right number of cars on the street at a given time. At the same time, depending on the fuel mix of cars with gas versus electric, these systems can improve air quality and public health. And the funds from these plans can help support and improve transit systems.

When you ask city leaders what kind of cities they and their residents are trying to build, the resounding answer is cities for people, not cars. Let’s make sure self-driving vehicles help make cities better for everyone.

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Google just added an insanely useful desktop search shortcut

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Google has quietly rolled out a new search shortcut for desktop users that is deceptively useful during the workday. As of now, users can press a single key on Google’s search results page to pull back open the search field, updating the search term without ever lifting a hand to use the mouse or trackpad.

The new feature was ‘announced’ by a small message box desktop users see in the bottom corner of their search results page, as first spied by 9to5Google; it reads, ‘Press / to jump to the search box.’

When you press the ‘/’ button, your cursor moves to the text field at the end of your search query, enabling you to quickly remove and add terms or scroll down through the suggested search queries. The shortcut key only works when you’re on the search results page, not the home page.

This is ultimately a very small change, but one that proves insanely useful when you’re often using Google for work or school. The amount of time saved by avoiding the mouse entirely adds up over time, not to mention getting you to the search results you want faster.

It’s unclear whether the feature is now available for all Google Search users on desktop or if it is rolling out more slowly. Our own test of the new shortcut found that it worked, though we never saw the shortcut notification on the search results page.

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Amazon may start asking even more of its delivery drivers

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Amazon is reportedly set to trial a new home assembly service for larger items, where delivery drivers would also put together furniture, appliances, or other larger items. The move, which is said to be planned for just a handful of markets as the online retail behemoth gauges popularity and feasibility, could make home shopping even easier, though there are concerns that delivery drivers themselves may face impractical expectations.

Online shopping has surged during the pandemic, and Amazon has seen a considerable share of that extra business. Its subscription plan Amazon Prime, for example, surged by 50 million members in the space of a year, bringing the total to 200 million.

The retailer’s ambitions, however, go beyond dropping items off at the doorstep. While you can currently schedule the delivery of a particularly large item, and even have it left in a specific room, Amazon is said to be preparing an even more hands-on service. The assembly option would see the delivery person actually put the item together in the home, Bloomberg reports.

According to people familiar with the plans, they say, Amazon is looking to trial the premium service in Virginia and two other unnamed markets. Unlike Amazon Home Services – which offers recommended local contractors booked through Amazon’s system – assembly and installation of the purchases would be handled by the company’s own delivery staff.

Still, there’d be a limit to what could be offered. Amazon Home Services, for example, includes options for tasks like installing electric car chargers, something which would be beyond the remit of a delivery driver. Instead, it’s suggested, Amazon sees it more around doing basics like putting together sofas and living room furniture, or installing a straightforward appliance like a washing machine or dishwasher.

Amazon has declined to comment on the leak, but according to Bloomberg there’s some consternation among the company’s delivery drivers about just what might be expected of them. The retailer has already faced criticism about working conditions for delivery staff, with accusations of grueling workloads that leave them little time for bathroom breaks. Among the concerns were just how long Amazon managers might allot for assembly and installation, and the safety of spending extended periods inside customers’ homes during the pandemic which has helped make online shopping so popular.

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Dogecoin goes up and Robinhood goes down

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Some things in life you can count on, and it seems like Robinhood crashing just when the finance market is getting interesting is one of them. The popular finance service – which has seen particular success with first-time and novice investors – has been suffering several periods of downtime during volatility in crypto trading, particularly Elon Musk’s favored Dogecoin.

The cryptocurrency has certainly had a bizarre week – and, for that matter, an equally bizarre few months. Initially begun as a joke, the so-called “meme currency” gained traction when Tesla founder Elon Musk began pumping it on his Twitter account.

This past week, meanwhile, DOGE has surged in price. Although individual coins are still worth just a handful of cents, their value has shot up by almost 200-percent. Combined with the ease of entry, it’s left some holders with a huge return on their initial purchases, which were often made when Dogecoin was only a cent or two.

Problem is, you only see those returns when you sell, and that’s been tricky if you opted to purchase via Robinhood. The service has been encountering periods of downtime which just so happened to coincide with some of DOGE’s peaks over the past day or two.

“We’re experiencing intermittent issues with crypto trading due to heightened volumes,” Robinhood has warned on its support site at several points over the past 24 hours. “Because of this, some crypto trades may not execute right now.”

Within the past hour, Robinhood said that it had restored crypto trading “for most customers.” As for those who aren’t in that group, there’s only an apology to tide them over. “To anyone still affected, we’re sorry for the interruption,” the company added. “We’re working to restore service for everyone as soon as possible.

It’s not the first time Robinhood has left investors floundering. During the GameStop stock surge earlier this year, users suddenly found that they were unable to buy the volatile $GME stock. The limits were subsequently extended to other shares, including AMC. Robinhood defended its decision with an explanation of the mechanisms behind trading, but not before the moves caught the attention of lawmakers who have called for an investigation into whether it acted appropriately.

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