Sloppy Reporting on the Self Driving Car
Feb 17, 2012 Clay Johnson

I get a lot of critique these days from my term "infoveganism" -- it's earned me a 2 star review on Amazon (somehow the reviewer thinks I mean to say Infovegans shouldn't read fiction -- I submit that infovegans should just understand when news is disguised as fiction), and a few fairly contentious arguments with some smart folks that I respect.

I thought I'd point out how journalists can enable infoveganism -- this idea that you should be of service to your readers and allow them to make up their own minds. Take a look at this piece from PC World by Mark Hachman. The story contains 9 links: one link to the author on Twitter and 8 links to other stories on PC World, 7 of which point to other stories by Hachman. Zero links in this story do the reader the service of allowing them to get closer to the source of the information: in this case, reading the actual law or announcement from the state of Nevada.

That context is incredibly important to the reader to understand how the self driving car works. Here's what could have been provided as context to this story. This is important -- the self driving car may be the most important, civilization-changing development since the advent of the Internet. Journalists reporting on the story didn't add anything to this -- instead, they subtracted from the story, and actively blocked people from getting the whole picture. Letting the press release do the reporting is insufficient.

A Google search on the state legislature system for the state of Nevada grants us a link to Google's testimony, and quickly points out a bill number: SB140 -- a bill that Google supported prohibiting texting while driving and calling while driving without the use of a speakerphone. Google lobbied to change the bill to make it so people could text and drive as long as the vehicle was self-driving.

We also find out the name of Google's Lobbyist on this issue: David Goldwater. David used to be a member of the legislature and when he was there, here's the kind of money he received from Nevada's industries. This is important because it lets us know that Google means business in Nevada.

Here's Goldwater's powerpoint slides he uses to build the case for the self driving car. And here's the piece of statute that was passed, instructing the Department of Motor Vehicles to make the rules. So what are the rules?

Here are the regulations that go into effect next month that go well beyond Hachman's sole example, churnalized from the press release -- that self driving cars will have different colored license plates than other cars. There's actually a lot of stuff going on here -- some interesting nuggets:

  1. You will have to get an endorsement on your driver's license saying that it's OK for you to drive a self-driving car. You have to pay $5 for that "endorsement"
  2. There is special insurance requirements for the self-driving car.
  3. Businesses wishing to test their self-driving cars have to buy a million dollar bond from the state.
  4. Two people are required to be present in an autonomous vehicle, both holding a valid driver's license.
  5. The car must operate only in a limited part of Nevada

I don't mean to pick on Hackman alone. It's not as though TechCrunch, or The Verge or the Washington Post actually did their readers the service of allowing them to get to the source material to make up their own minds either.

It's likely that's because they simply read the press release, and went from there. And that's because they're not incentivized to do any homework on the stories they want to write: they're incentivized to produce cheap, popular information. They're incentivized to keep people clicking on their sites, to view their advertisements and no-one else's. It's the same thing that happened to agriculture. Unless we start demanding that kind of work (the research on this post took me 25 minutes) from our media through our consumption actions, we'll never get it.

If you like this line of thinking, you'll probably like my book, The Information Diet

Information Diet © 2011 Clay Johnson