The fight over fuel economy rules is getting messy 0 54

The fight over fuel economy rules is getting messy

Fueling the fire —

Some in Congress want to investigate the Justice Department’s investigators.

Aarian Marshall, wired.com

The fight over fuel economy rules is getting messy

Getty Images

Legal wrangling among the federal government, the state of California, and four automakers who—oddly—are asking for more stringent regulations got even more knotty this month, when the Department of Justice reportedly launched an antitrust probe into companies that struck a deal with California climate regulators.

Now some members of Congress are urging an independent investigation of the investigation, amid suspicions that the probe is an attempt to punish the automakers—and California—for parting ways with federal policy on fuel economy.

The “what’ is confusing; the “why,” less so. If the average global temperature rises by 4°C by the end of the century, as it may be on track to do, scientists say a whole bunch of bad things would likely happen: higher sea levels, more extreme weather. In the US, transportation is responsible for 29% of greenhouse gas emissions, and nearly 60% of those come from light-duty vehicles like passenger cars.

That’s why the Obama administration decided in 2012 to (slowly) strengthen regulations governing vehicles’ tailpipe emissions and fuel economy standards, requiring each automaker’s fleet to average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 and boosting the penalty for missing that target. The Trump administration, on the other hand, wants to freeze those standards at 37mpg and delay the penalty hike, arguing that it will save automakers money, keeping prices low so that more people can buy newer cars with safer technology. (Electric vehicle proponents have questioned this logic.)

California has other ideas. In July, state regulators said they had reached their own deal with Ford, Honda, BMW, and Volkswagen, which would continue to ramp up fuel economy standards through 2025. Together, the four automakers account for roughly 30% of US car sales. The compromise would reach the same average fuel economy levels as the Obama-era standards but with a slighter longer timeline.

California is a vital market for automakers, and not just because it’s the nation’s largest economy: thirteen other states have pledged to follow its lead on emissions rules. Together, those 14 states account for about one-third of US vehicle sales. One set of rules for one-third of the car-buying country, and another for the rest would be disastrous for carmakers.

Other big automakers are in wait-and-see mode. General Motors reportedly believes the California deal doesn’t give manufacturers enough credit for investments in fully electric vehicles. The Automobile Alliance, which represents the four carmakers involved in the California deal but also non-signatories like GM and Fiat Chrysler, says its priority is avoiding “uncertainty from protracted litigation.”

California is able to set its own emissions standards thanks to text in the Clean Air Act that dates back to the 1970s. At that time, California was well ahead of the rest of the country in combating emissions, so Congress gave it authority to write its own, stricter rules. The Bush administration tried to deny California’s effort to set its own emissions standards in 2007, but Obama had taken office before the case was resolved.

Now the Trump administration wants to revoke California’s legal authority to set its own rules, and it’s trying to do that through lawsuits and new regulations. (Technically, California and other states sued it, arguing that it doesn’t have the authority to nix the Obama-era rules.) Legal experts say the administration may have a tough road ahead without Congress’ help. “The statute is very clear: It says EPA shall grant the waiver,” Cara Horowitz, co-executive director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA School of Law, has told WIRED. However, federal judges at a hearing in Washington, DC, earlier this month signaled they would be willing to consider the merits of the administration’s arguments.

Experts say the antitrust probe into California’s dealings is unusual and that antitrust charges might not apply to businesses’ cooperative agreements with government entities—the state of California, for example. Congress could also choose to intercede to prevent the federal government from using antitrust laws as punitive sticks.

Congress, meanwhile, may launch an investigation into the antitrust probe. In a Friday letter to the head of the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General, Senate Judiciary Committee member (and presidential candidate) Kamala Harris (D-California) urged the office to examine the motivations for the probe, calling it part of a “multi-pronged assault on California’s framework.” The House’s Judiciary Committee, meanwhile, which is controlled by Democrats, has said that it will seek documents and hearings connected to the antitrust investigation.

California politicians also seem ready for a long-haul flight. “The Trump administration has been attempting and failing to bully car companies for months now,” California Governor Gavin Newsom said in a statement earlier this month. “We remain undeterred. California stands up to bullies and will keep fighting for stronger clean car protections that protect the health and safety of our children and families.”

This story originally appeared on wired.com.

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Google Maps gets new icon, tweaked UI for 15th birthday 0 11

Google Maps gets new icon, tweaked UI for 15th birthday

OK, but what about dark mode? —

There’s a new icon, new tabs, and the death of the hamburger button.


  • Left: the new Google Maps logo. Right: the old logo.

  • The new logo loosely follows Google’s new icon style, which is slowly creeping across the app lineup.

  • Here’s the “new” Google Maps. There are two new tabs at the bottom and “For You” was renamed to “Updates.” Also the hamburger button is dead.

  • Here are the two new tabs. Neither of these sections are new; they’re just tab buttons now.

Google Maps is turning 15 this year, and Google is celebrating with a new icon and a few UI tweaks.

First, the Google Maps icon is no longer, well, a map and is now a multi-colored map pin. Like all of Google’s other recent icons, Maps’ icon follows a formula of outfitting a simple shape or letter with the colors red, blue, green, and yellow, and calling it a day. You can expect this new icon to pop up on your phone sometime soon.

The bottom tab navigation is going to switch from three tabs to five, with new tabs for “Saved” (Saved places), “Contribute,” and “Updates.” None of these sections really represent new features, they just used to live in the left-side navigation drawer and now they have top-level access via the tab bar. Speaking of the left-side navigation drawer, the hamburger button that used to open it is dead. Presumably, the settings and other miscellaneous menu options will live under the account switcher, accessible via your profile picture on the right side of the search bar.

Crowdsourcing has always been a major source of information for Google Maps, and soon Google says it will start surfacing information based on surveys that past Google Maps users have filled out. Things like the temperature of a mass transit car, accessibility, and the security level will soon be surfaced when you’re planning your travels.

Google’s last update concerns the company’s augmented reality “Live View” mode in Maps. Instead of unreliable smartphone compass hardware, Live View cross-references your camera feed with Street View imagery to figure out the direction you’re facing. The feature is meant to help with walking navigation in big cities, where getting that first turn right can often be a challenge. Live View works, but location compatibility is currently extremely limited right now. Google says it will be “expanding Live View and testing new capabilities” over the coming months but doesn’t provide any detail on what, exactly, that means.

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Downloading public court documents costs a dime a page—is that legal? 0 18

Downloading public court documents costs a dime a page—is that legal?

Tear down this wall? —

Federal courts use hefty PACER fees to pay for non-PACER projects.


Chief Justice John Roberts.

Enlarge / Chief Justice John Roberts did not actually use PACER fees to buy a new chair. That’s just a hypothetical example.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

If you need documents from federal court cases, you’re in luck. Almost every brief, exhibit, and legal ruling is available for download from the judiciary’s PACER website. But there’s a catch: documents cost 10 cents a page.

In 2016, three nonprofit organizations, the National Veterans Legal Services Program, the National Consumer Law Center, and the Alliance for Justice sued the federal courts—in federal court. The class action lawsuit, filed on behalf of all fee-paying PACER users, argued that these hefty charges were illegal. Federal law allows the courts to charge fees “only to the extent necessary” to provide public access to information. Over the last 15 years, the cost of storage and bandwidth has plunged. Yet PACER’s fees have actually risen from 7 cents to 10 cents. These fees have raised far more money than it costs to run the PACER system: $146 million in 2016 alone.

In a 2018 ruling, Judge Ellen Huvelle largely agreed with the plaintiffs, concluding that the courts are breaking the law by spending PACER money on non-PACER projects like installing flat-screen TVs in courtrooms and sending electronic notifications to bankruptcy creditors. On Monday, the case reached the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, where three judges heard oral arguments from each side. Judges seemed skeptical of the arguments of government lawyers representing the judiciary.

Before I explain the arguments, I should note that I’m not a neutral observer on this issue. As a reporter, I’m a frequent user of PACER; Ars Technica will probably get some money back if the plaintiffs win this lawsuit. Also, a decade ago, I helped create RECAP, a browser extension that helps PACER users share documents with each other and avoid paying PACER fees. I’ve long been on record arguing that public court documents should be free to the public—not locked behind a paywall.

The current lawsuit wouldn’t go that far. Both sides agree that the courts are allowed to charge something for judicial documents. But the two sides in Monday’s oral arguments disagreed radically about how much the documents should cost. Plaintiffs argued that the law only allows the courts to charge the marginal cost of distributing documents—a tiny fraction of the current fee. The Administrative Office of the Courts, on the other hand, has argued for an expansive interpretation of the law that allows them to charge as much as they want and to spend it on anything related to distributing information electronically to the public.

In her 2018 ruling, Judge Huvelle charted a middle course. She ruled that the courts could not only charge for the cost of delivering a particular document to a particular customer, but also for the costs of maintaining the infrastructure behind the PACER system. That includes CM/ECF, the website that litigants and judges use to upload, organize, and view case documents. She concluded that these costs are relevant because PACER is fundamentally a public-facing front-end for the CM/ECF system. But she held that the courts couldn’t use PACER fees to pay for projects completely unrelated to PACER.

“We’re redecorating all judges’ offices with gold plate”

Monday’s oral arguments (MP3 recording here) didn’t go well for Alisa Klein, the government lawyer representing the judiciary. At one point an exchange got so testy that Judge Raymond Clevenger snapped, “Do you have a lot of trouble answering questions generally in life or just when you come in front of the court?”

Rather than directly defending the courts’ use of PACER fees for non-PACER purposes, Klein spent most of her time arguing that the courts shouldn’t be hearing the case at all—an issue known as “standing” in legal jargon. While the law restricts how fees can be spent, she said, Congress didn’t intend to let individual PACER users sue the courts if the law wasn’t followed.

The judges seemed skeptical. Clevenger asked incredulously whether it would be legal for PACER fees to be used to replace “the curtains at the Supreme Court” and to buy “the Chief Justice’s new chair.”

“We’re redecorating all judges’ offices with gold plate,” he said sarcastically. Under the judiciary’s theory, he said, “there’s absolutely no remedy” for this kind of illegal spending.

But Klein pointed out that the judiciary’s budget gets reviewed and approved every year by Congress. If Congress doesn’t want the courts spending PACER fees on gold-plated office renovations, Congress can easily nix expenses it doesn’t like. This annual process of oversight and appropriations, not lawsuits from private citizens, should shape spending decisions by the courts, she argued.

If the judges do decide that the courts have overcharged customers, they’ll be left with the tricky problem of deciding how much was overcharged. Deepak Gupta, the lawyer who represented the non-profit plaintiffs, said he didn’t have enough information to draw a clear line between permitted and illegal uses. He suggested that the judges send the case back down to the lower courts with instructions to dig into the courts’ budgets, uncover more information, and then rule on the issue.

While this lawsuit might force the courts to reduce PACER fees, eliminating the paywall entirely will probably take action from Congress. Last year, Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) introduced legislation requiring the courts to make PACER documents available free of charge. But so far the bill hasn’t gotten much traction.

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