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Senate eyes R&D bill to counter China, bolster manufacturing

Associated Press

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Senate eyes R&D bill to counter China, bolster manufacturing

What started as a pragmatic effort to boost scientific research and development has morphed into sweeping Senate bill aimed at making the U.S. more competitive with China and other countries, including $50 billion in emergency funds to shore up domestic computer chip manufacturing.

The American Innovation and Competition Act is key to President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plans and was heading toward final passage despite some glitches late Thursday. It’s also a test of whether the split 50-50 Senate can accomplish bipartisan achievements at a time when there’s pressure on Democrats to change the rules to push past obstruction and gridlock.

Senators slogged through days of debates and amendments, but proceedings came to a standstill late Thursday. One Republican, Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, protested the rush to finish and insisted on more changes to the sprawling package. A few other Republicans joined him.

By midnight senators huddled in the chamber to discuss next steps. Passage was still expected, but debate dragged into Friday morning.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the Commerce Committee chairwoman managing the action for Democrats, reminded colleagues that the bill has been through lengthy committee hearings with input and changes from all sides.

“I actually think we have gotten more mindshare with people about why this is important, right, because we had an open debate process,” she said earlier in the week.

The emerging final product has enjoyed broad, bipartisan support and would be one of the more comprehensive investments in U.S. research and development in recent years as the country tries to bolster and rebuild home-state industries that have shifted overseas during the era of globalization.

A top Republican author, Sen. Todd Young of Indiana, characterized his underlying proposal — the Endless Frontier Act he co-authored with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer — as part of the country’s history of innovation, like the moon landing or launch of the internet, that Washington needs to foster if America is to remain competitive.

“It’s not about beating China,” Young said in a speech Thursday. He said it’s about rising to the challenge posed by China “to be a better version of ourselves.”

Biden had included elements of the legislation as part of his big infrastructure plan, the American Jobs Act, making a similar case that the U.S. needs to increase its investments to stay competitive with rivals, particularly China.

During a virtual meeting with CEOs last month over the global computer chip shortage that has been disrupting supplies and sales of everyday goods — from cellphones to new cars — Biden explained his plan to “build the infrastructure of today.”

But the bill became weighted down by the sheer scope of the effort. Actually a collection of bills, it swelled to more than 2,400 pages and a final package of some three dozen amendments from senators of both parties submitted late Thursday caused the opponents to hit the brakes.

Johnson stacked up the bill at his desk bemoaning the towering size, even as he said the legislative process to bring the bill to this point had been better than most over the past decade.

“We haven’t had time to read this — no one has,” said Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., joining Johnson’s protest.

The last round of amendments was shelved by the objection. But Johnson seized the floor to push other priorities, including his concerns over another topic — illegal immigration and his interest in secure fencing along the southern border with Mexico.

The centerpiece of the bill is a $50 billion emergency allotment to the Commerce Department to stand up semiconductor development and manufacturing through research and development and incentive programs previously authorized by Congress. They focus on the military, automakers and other critical industries reliant on computer chips.

The U.S. once manufactured far more chips than today, which some senators said put the U.S. at risk of fluctuations in the global supply chain, as happened over the past year with shortages.

The Endless Frontier provision would authorize funding for the National Science Foundation, including the establishment of a Directorate for Technology and Innovation, as well as research and development funds and scholarships for students focused on science, technology, engineering and math programs.

Senators have tried to strike a balance in raising awareness about China’s growing influence without fanning divisive anti-Asian rhetoric, mindful that hate crimes against Asian Americans have spiked during the coronavirus pandemic.

Other measures spell out national security concerns and target money laundering schemes or cyberattacks by entities on behalf of the government of China. There are also “buy America” provisions for infrastructure projects in the U.S.

At the same time, senators agreed to tack on amendments showing shifting attitudes over China’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak. One would prevent federal funds for the Wuhan Institute of Virology amid fresh investigation into the origins of the virus and possible connections to the lab’s research. The city registered some of the first virus cases.

Taken together, the innovation act has been a priority for Schumer, the Democratic leader who has long advocated a tougher approach to China. He and Young struck up a conversation about teaming up on a bill during workouts at the Senate gym, lawmakers said.

It’s unclear whether the measure would find support in the Democratic-led House.


WASHINGTON (AP) — By LISA MASCARO AP Congressional Correspondent.

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US to seek automated braking requirement for heavy trucks

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automated braking requirement

In a reversal from Trump administration policies, U.S. auto safety regulators say they will move to require or set standards for automatic emergency braking systems on new heavy trucks.

The Department of Transportation, which includes the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, announced the change Friday when it released its spring regulatory agenda.

It also will require what it said are rigorous testing standards for autonomous vehicles, and set up a national database to document automated-vehicle crashes.

The moves by the administration of President Joe Biden run counter to the agency’s stance under President Donald Trump. NHTSA had resisted regulation of automated-vehicle systems, saying it didn’t want to stand in the way of potential life-saving developments. Instead it relied on voluntary safety plans from manufacturers.

NHTSA had proposed a regulation on automatic emergency braking in 2015 before Trump took office, but it languished in the regulatory process. The agency says it has been studying use of the electronic systems, and it plans to publish a proposed rule in the Federal Register in April of next year. When a regulation is published, it opens the door to public comment.

“We are glad to see NHTSA finally take the next step in making large trucks safer by mandating AEB,” said Jason Levine, director of the Center for Auto Safety, which was among the groups that petitioned for the requirement in 2015. “Unfortunately, at this rate, it will still be years until the technology that could help stop the 5,000 truck crash deaths on our roads is required,” he said in an email.

A trade group representing independent big rig drivers says the technology isn’t ready for heavy vehicles and can unexpectedly activate without reason.

“Our members have also reported difficulties operating vehicles in inclement weather when the system is engaged, which has created safety concerns,” the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association said in a statement.

The association says that while the technology is still being perfected, legislators and regulators shouldn’t set time frames for requiring it on all trucks.

However, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a research group supported by auto insurers, found in a study last year that automatic emergency braking and forward collision warnings could prevent more than 40% of crashes in which semis rear-end other vehicles. A study by the group found that when rear crashes happened, the systems cut speeds by more than half, reducing damage and injuries.

Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, another group that sought the regulation from NHTSA in 2015, said the agency is moving too slowly by not publishing the regulation until next year.

“I don’t understand the delay,” she said. “I know that might sound impatient, but when people are dying on the roads, 5,000 people are dying on the roads each year, and we have proven solutions, we would like to see more immediate action,” she said.

In 2016, NHTSA brokered a deal with 20 automakers representing 99% of U.S. new passenger vehicle sales to voluntarily make automatic emergency braking standard on all models by Sept. 1, 2022. But that deal did not apply to big rigs.

The announcement of the requirements comes two days after four people were killed when a milk tanker going too fast collided with seven passenger vehicles on a Phoenix freeway. At least nine people were injured.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates crashes and makes recommendations to stop them from happening, said Thursday it would send a nine-person team to investigate the Phoenix crash. The agency said it would look at whether automatic emergency braking in the truck would have mitigated or prevented the crash.

Since at least 2015 the NTSB has recommended automatic emergency braking or collision alerts be standard on vehicles.

At present, there are no federal requirements that semis have forward collision warning or automatic emergency braking, even though the systems are becoming common on smaller passenger vehicles.

The systems use cameras and sometimes radar to see objects in front of a vehicle, and they either warn the driver or slow and even stop the vehicle if it’s about to hit something.


DETROIT (AP) — By TOM KRISHER AP Auto Writer

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Google pledges to resolve ad privacy probe with UK watchdog

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Google has promised to give U.K. regulators a role overseeing its plan to phase out existing ad-tracking technology from its Chrome browser as part of a competition investigation into the tech giant.

The U.K. competition watchdog has been investigating Google’s proposals to remove so-called third-party cookies over concerns they would undermine digital ad competition and entrench the company’s market power.

To address the concerns, Google on Friday offered a set of commitments including giving the Competition and Markets Authority an oversight role as the company designs and develops a replacement technology.

“The emergence of tech giants such as Google has presented competition authorities around the world with new challenges that require a new approach,” Andrea Coscelli, the watchdog’s chief executive, said.

The Competition and Markets Authority will work with tech companies to “shape their behaviour and protect competition to the benefit of consumers,” he said.

The promises also include “substantial limits” on how Google will use and combine individual user data for digital ad purposes and a pledge not to discriminate against rivals in favor of its own ad businesses with the new technology.

If Google’s commitments are accepted, they will be applied globally, the company said in a blog post.

Third-party cookies – snippets of code that log user info – are used to help businesses more effectively target advertising and fund free online content such as newspapers. However, they’ve also been a longstanding source of privacy concerns because they can be used to track users across the internet.

Google shook up the digital ad industry with its plan to do away with third-party cookies, which raised fears newer technology would leave even less room for online ad rivals.


LONDON (AP).

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Amazon now says remote work OK 2 days a week

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Amazon now says remote work OK 2 days a week

Corporate and tech employees at Amazon won’t have to work in offices full time after coronavirus restrictions are lifted.

The Seattle Times reports the online retail giant said in a company blog post Thursday that those workers can work remotely two days a week. In addition, the employees can work remotely from a domestic location for four full weeks each year.

Amazon’s work policy update follows backlash from some employees to what they interpreted as the expectation they would have to return to the office full time once states reopen.

Some tech companies had launched recruiting campaigns that seemed targeted in part at Amazon workers’ dismay over an end to remote work.

Most Amazon employees will start heading back to offices as soon as local jurisdictions fully reopen — July 1 in Washington state — with the majority of workers in offices by autumn, the company said previously.

Amazon has about 75,000 employees in the greater Seattle area. The company’s new remote-work plan is similar to other large tech companies.

Google said last month that it expected roughly 60% of its workforce to come into the office a few days a week, and for 20% to work from home full time. Google also gave all employees the option to work remotely full time four weeks per year. Facebook and Microsoft have both said most workers can choose to stay remote.

Amazon’s new policy could add to the challenges faced by Seattle’s traditional business core. In pre-pandemic times, tens of thousands of Amazon workers commuted into the South Lake Union neighborhood north of downtown every day. Most haven’t returned.

More than 450 downtown retailers, restaurants and other street-level business locations have closed permanently in the 16 months since the pandemic sent office workers home, according to a Downtown Seattle Association survey.

Of the roughly 175,000 people who worked in downtown offices before the pandemic, 80% continue to work remotely, according to association data.


SEATTLE (AP)

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