Why the Nigerian Prince email scam won’t die, explained by an economist – by Robert H. Frank on May 18, 2015

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Economics can help explain all sorts of things in life, from what we eat to our choice of romantic partners to where we live. To encourage my Cornell students to consider how economics applies to their everyday lives, I challenge them to “pose an interesting question based on something you’ve seen or experienced personally, and then use basic economic principles to craft a plausible answer to it.” I call it the Economic Naturalist writing assignment.

In my first installment in this series, I described some of my students’ most interesting responses to this assignment. For this installment, I’ll share one more from  a 2007 collection of my all-time favorites and two new ones submitted this year. In future pieces, I’ll describe more examples from the past and also respond to questions that you submit. You can send me questions via Twitter (@econnaturalist) or email (voxcrowdsource@vox.com).

Why are child safety seats required in cars but not in airplanes?
–Greg Balet

Greg began with the observation that government regulations require strapping your toddler into a safety seat for even a two-block drive to the grocery store, yet permit your child to sit on your lap untethered when you fly from Miami to Seattle. Why this difference?

The cost of using a safety seat is much lower in cars than on a full flight. (Mick Stevens)

Many people are quick to respond that if a plane crashes, all passengers usually perish, whether they’re strapped in or not. It’s true, but then why were seat belts required in airplanes long before they were required in cars? The answer is that being tethered is actually far more important in airplanes than in cars, because severe air turbulence happens far more frequently than serious auto accidents. But then why do regulators permit toddlers to fly untethered?

Using standard cost-benefit reasoning, Greg argued that the real reason for the difference in regulations is rooted in the cost side of the equation rather than the benefit side. Once you have a safety seat set up in your car, there is no additional charge for strapping your child into it.  Since the marginal cost is zero and the marginal benefit is improved safety for your child, strapping your child in while traveling in your car makes perfect economic sense.

But if you’re flying across the country on a full flight, you must buy an extra ticket in order to put your child in a safety seat. And that might cost you $1,000 or more.

Some people object that taking monetary costs into account is improper when dealing with issues of life and safety. By that logic, however, people should get the brakes checked on their cars each time they go anywhere. Like it or not, costs matter, even for decisions involving safety.

Why do Nigerian email scammers still use the same tired cover stories?
–Erin Popelka

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Why future cars will be more fun – BBC News | 28 October 2014

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The imminent future of driverless cars promises to make driving safer and more efficient… but will this world be more fun? Maybe we’ll all forget how to steer a car, and the joys of the open road will become a thing of the past.

Tell that to Ben Abel, who helps run the Michelin Challenge Design, a project to discover cars of the future. On the contrary, he says, driverless cars inside cities could free up designers to focus on vehicles created for pleasure outside built-up areas.

Every year, Abel of Michelin Innovation Incubator in South Carolina and colleagues run a competition to encourage designers to submit their ideas for futuristic vehicles – and this year, the theme was “passion”. The weird and wonderful entries submitted ranged from cars with sails to a vehicle controlled by a driver suspended above the roof in a wingsuit.

Far-out? Perhaps. But as Abel told BBC Future at the World-Changing Ideas Summit in New York, the point of the challenge is to seek out ground-breaking ideas from all cultures and backgrounds. Fostering this creativity could lead to the next big advance in automotive design.

In the video above, Abel also told BBC Future what the one thing he thinks is needed for driverless cars to take off.

(Youngjai Jun/Gunyoung Yoon)

View all of the designs for the 2015 Michelin Challenge Design (Youngjai Jun/Gunyoung Yoon)


Regulator Slow to Respond to Deadly Vehicle Defects – By HILARY STOUT, DANIELLE IVORY and REBECCA R. RUIZSEPT. 14, 2014


David Friedman, N.H.T.S.A.’s acting head, indicated in a Senate hearing that he did not realize the agency could issue subpoenas. Credit Larry Downing/Reuters

General Motors published an article in February on its Chevrolet website trumpeting an achievement certain to help sell a lot of cars.

Its 2014 Chevys had earned more five-star overall safety ratings in a new car assessment program than had any other brand.

The next day, G.M. began recalling millions of its cars for a deadly ignition defect, and by August, six of the eight five-star Chevrolet models had been recalled for a variety of safety issues, including defects in air bags, brakes and steering. Five had been recalled multiple times.

It was an embarrassing turn — but not just for the embattled automaker. The stellar rankings had been awarded by the federal regulatory agency that is mandated by Congress to ensure the safety of automobiles.

The agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, has a record of missteps that goes well beyond its failure to detect an ignition switch defect in several models of G.M. cars now linked to at least 13 deaths.

An investigation by The New York Times into the agency’s handling of major safety defects over the past decade found that it frequently has been slow to identify problems, tentative to act and reluctant to employ its full legal powers against companies.

The Times analyzed agency correspondence, regulatory documents and public databases and interviewed congressional and executive branch investigators, former agency employees and auto safety experts. It found that in many of the major vehicle safety issues of recent years — including unintended acceleration in Toyotas, fires in Jeep fuel tanks and air bag ruptures in Hondas, as well as the G.M. ignition defect — the agency did not take a leading role until well after the problems had reached a crisis level, safety advocates had sounded alarms and motorists were injured or died.

Not only does the agency spend about as much money rating new cars — a favorite marketing tool for automakers — as it does investigating potentially deadly manufacturing defects, but it also has been so deferential to automakers that it made a key question it poses about fatal accidents optional — a policy it is only now changing after inquiries from The Times.

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No One’s Going to Stop Using Phones in the Car. Here’s How We Make That Safer – BY TODD GRECO 07.30.14 | 6:30 AM `


 Atsushi Yamada/Getty

My wife’s 10-year-old car has an expensive built-in navigation system, but anytime she drives out of Portland, she uses Waze on her iPhone. Besides being free, this “social driving” app (now owned by Google) is dramatically smarter and more useful than anything her Lexus offers, and proves its worth regularly, as it did when helping us route around a 30-minute traffic jam last month, on our way back from the Oregon coast. The dark screen of the car’s nav system makes a fine backrest for the phone, while Waze gleefully chimes in with accurate, crowdsourced traffic updates over the sound system via Bluetooth.

For all its utility, this is clearly not an ideal situation: It’s redundant, and the interface is far from optimal, or even entirely safe. Recent government regulation efforts are attempting to bring mobile use in cars under some kind of control, but ultimately it’s not a legislative problem. It’s a design problem.

Instead of trying to legislate this kind of behavior away, or pretending it doesn’t happen in the first place, we need to figure out how to make it work, safely and effectively. For interaction and user experience designers, this is a familiar problem of designing for context, except in this case, the context is a car.

Waze is already taking steps of its own to encourage safer use, warning drivers to not use the touch UI when the phone is in motion and–crucially–offering a voice interface instead. Newer aftermarket head units in cars, like those from Pioneer and Alpine, already allow voice control of all major phone activities over Bluetooth, including calling, answering and text messaging. Soon we’ll reach the point where our smartphones can push their screens wirelessly to large format in-car screens, custom-designed for rapid access and low distraction, and integrated with steering wheel controls. Two years from now, I expect technology that makes all of this to look quaint. Designing and developing for smartphones, after all, is far easier than it is for cars, which is why all the interesting things happen there.