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What’s Driving Uber’s Pursuit of Driverless Cars?

On March 18th, a self-driving Uber car being tested in Arizona killed a pedestrian. The autonomous Volvo SUV struck a woman crossing the street outside of the crosswalk. There was a driver behind the wheel, but the car was in autonomous mode at the time of the accident. Uber began testing their Volvo SUVs in Arizona in February of last year. Uber is also testing its autonomous fleet in Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Toronto, and Phoenix. After this accident, Uber suspended the self-driving testing in all of these cities.

The economic potential that autonomous vehicles represent has triggered a high-stakes competition between Uber, Google, Apple, Tesla, and major car manufacturers. These massive companies are in a race to be the first to achieve true autonomy, and are throwing loads of money at solving the problem. The company that finds a solution first stands to gain a significant market advantage over everyone still catching up. Truly autonomous vehicles could wipe out the trucking industry, taxi industry, and delivery industry in one fell swoop. Full automation of the $719 billion trucking industry could result in labor cost savings of about $300 billion. Thus, there’s a huge economic incentive for eliminating human drivers.

This heated competition has triggered lawsuits. Google’s Waymo sued Uber, alleging theft of trade secrets. A week into trial, Waymo and Uber reached a settlement, but the lawsuit resulted in some dirty laundry being aired out. The discovery process revealed the internal communications of these companies, shedding light on the mindsets of top executives. A win-at-all-costs mentality and desperation about coming in second was evident between both companies. Emails between Uber executives revealed their desire to “take all the shortcuts we can” because they saw it as “a race we need to win, second place is the first loser.”

Between 2014-2016, about 37,000 people died in car crashes each year. Part of the push for driverless cars and trucks has been increased safety and fatality reduction. Proponents of autonomous vehicles argue that a computer will make far fewer errors than human drivers, considering computers will not get distracted by phones, get tired, get drunk, etc. However, the Waymo-Uber trial inadvertently revealed that Uber’s motivation lies in achieving market dominance.

Additional fatalities are likely to happen as this technology proliferates and becomes more common, but any PR spin from Uber about its commitment to safety may ring hollow due to the short-cut strategy endorsed by its executives. More importantly, Uber will face massive legal liability for wrongful deaths and injuries if plaintiffs show safety concerns were ignored in pursuit of winning the race.

Uber is fully aware of this potential liability. From a cynical perspective, it’s possible that Uber believes the profits they stand to gain from winning will dwarf wrongful death and personal injury losses by so much that shortcuts are worth it. Thus, paying for fatalities and injuries may just be a cost of doing business in Uber’s quest to dominate the autonomous car market.

How Tech Caught the Austin Bomber

For three weeks in March, a serial bomber terrorized Austin, Texas. Mark Anthony Conditt killed two people and injured several others. The manhunt gripped the nation, drawing comparisons to the search for the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, who eluded capture for decades until the FBI caught him in 1995. However, technology has improved dramatically since the ’90s and played a central role in quickly ending the Austin bomber’s reign of terror.


Surveillance Footage and ALPR Cameras

The first three bombings were from packages left on a doorstep by the bomber. The bomber used a tripwire for the fourth bombing. The bomber’s final attempted method was mailing a bomb through FedEx, which exploded at a sorting facility near Austin. Authorities tracked it back to the drop-off location at a FedEx retail store. Surveillance footage captured the bomber dropping off the package in disguise, as well as the license plate number of his vehicle.

Police were likely able to track the direction the vehicle went, or where it had been in the past, using what’s known as Automated License Plate Readers. Austin, like many big cities around the country, uses ALPRs. They’re similar to red light cameras, but you won’t see them unless you know where to look. ALPRs are high-speed camera systems typically mounted on light poles, traffic lights, overpasses, and squad cars, which can change locations. They capture the license plate of every single passing vehicle, which is then uploaded into a searchable database. With ALPRs placed sporadically throughout a city, police can piece together the movements of a suspect’s vehicle.


Cell Phone Tracking

Prior to catching the bomber on camera at the FedEx store, law enforcement tried to track down the suspect using the cell towers near the bombings. Law enforcement can issue a search warrant for a “tower dump” to provide historical records of all traffic on certain cell towers on specific dates. The FBI’s cellular analysis survey teams sorted through a vast amount of data from the cell towers and were able to zero in on the phone numbers that showed up repeatedly at each of the bombing sites.

However, once police obtained the bomber’s license plate, they were able to link that plate to his cell phone number. Then they could issue a search warrant to the phone provider for a detailed record of the cell towers his phone connected to in the past. Police could also issue a warrant to track the phone’s current location using cell tower triangulation. “Pinging” the phone reveals the three towers surrounding the target; calculating distances from each of the towers allows investigators to pinpoint a precise location.

A more powerful (and more controversial) tool used by the FBI is known as a “Stingray” device. A Stingray acts as a “cell-site simulator” or a fake tower, forcing all cellular devices in the area to connect to it. The device can fit in the trunk of a car, allowing law enforcement to drive around an area looking for a particular phone. It’s controversial because every other innocent phone in the area has its data scooped up as well.


Google Search History

Law enforcement obtained a search warrant for the bomber’s Google search history, revealing searches they found suspicious, as well as searches of other addresses in Austin.  Police were also able to track down store receipts of common household items he used to make the bombs, further confirming their belief that Conditt was the bomber.



Using all of these tools, police tracked Conditt’s location to a hotel outside of Austin. Police and federal agents gathered around the hotel awaiting more backup when Conditt got in his vehicle and drove away. Police followed and forced him to stop on the side of the interstate.  As a SWAT team approached his vehicle, he detonated a bomb, killing himself. Technology can often be over intrusive, but it certainly deserves much of the credit for quickly neutralizing this serial bomber.


  1. https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/22/us/austin-explosions-investigation/index.html
  2. https://www.eff.org/pages/automated-license-plate-readers-alpr
  3. https://www.usnews.com/news/business/articles/2018-03-22/ap-explains-how-a-phone-may-have-steered-hunt-for-bomber
  4. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/trail-austin-bombing-suspect-combined-high-tech-old-fashioned-techniques-n858791
  5. Order under 18 U.S.C. § 2703(d) (Stored Communications Act (SCA), 18 U.S.C. § 2701 et. seq.)
  6. Order under “Hybrid” authority of the SCA and the Pen / Trap Statute, 18 U.S.C. §§ 3121–3127
  7. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-03-22/how-a-phone-steered-the-hunt-for-texas-parcel-bomber/9576040
  8. https://www.statesman.com/news/breaking-austin-bombing-suspect-dies-police-close-official-says/KZmUAGvKlNazDr31EzeUzI/

Don Cazayoux Joins Branden Fremin on an Interview With Jim Engster

Recently, Cazayoux Ewing partner and Former US Attorney Don Cazayoux had the pleasure of joining current US Attorney Brandon Fremin on Talk Louisiana with Jim Engster. The two discuss the challenges and responsibilities of the US Attorney office and its role in Louisiana’s Middle District. Listen in to hear Don and Brandon answer federal law enforcement questions from the community and share their thoughts about cracking down on drug-related crime in Baton Rouge. Click here to listen to the show! 

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