Facebook Launches Job Search Feature for Low-Skilled Workers

Facebook wants to make it easier for people to find low-skilled jobs online.

After testing the new software in U.S. and Canada since last year, Facebook added job postings Wednesday in another 40 countries across Europe and elsewhere.

The software works with both Apple and PC operating systems.

Users can find openings using the Jobs dashboard on Facebook’s web sidebar or its mobile app’s More section. The search can be filtered according to area and type of industry, as well as between full-time and part-time jobs.

Users can automatically fill out applications with information from their Facebook profile, submit the applications and schedule interviews.

Businesses can post job openings using the Jobs tab on their page, and include advertisements.

Separately, Facebook announced the introduction of a face recognition software that helps users quickly find photos they’re in, but haven’t been tagged in. The new software will help users protect themselves against unauthorized use of their photos, as well as allow visually impaired users learn who is in their photos and videos.

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Moon to Get Its Own Mobile Network

Several high-tech companies are teaming up on a plan to put a mobile phone network on the moon next year.

Vodaphone Germany, Nokia, and Audi are working on a mobile network and robotic vehicles that are part of a private expedition to the moon, timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary year of the first manned lunar landing.

The project with PTScientists in Germany would use a 4G network to send high-definition information from rovers back to a lunar lander, which would then be able to communicate it back to Earth. 

Project scientists say the system uses less energy than having rovers speak directly to Earth, leaving more power for scientific activities. 

They plan to launch the vehicles from Cape Canaveral next year on a Space X Falcon 9 rocket. 

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Facebook: No New Evidence Russia Interfered in Brexit Vote

Facebook Inc has told a British parliamentary committee that further investigations have found no new evidence that Russia used social media to interfere in the June 2016 referendum in which Britain voted to leave the European Union.

Facebook UK policy director Simon Milner in a letter Wednesday told the House of Commons Committee on Digital, Culture Media and Sport that the latest investigation the company undertook in mid-January to try to “identify clusters of coordinated Russian activity around the Brexit referendum that were not identified previously” had been unproductive.

Using the same methodology that Facebook used to identify U.S. election-related social media activity conducted by a Russian propaganda outfit called the Internet Research Agency, Milner said the social network had reviewed both Facebook accounts and “the activity of many thousands of advertisers in the campaign period” leading up to the June 23, 2016 referendum.

He said they had “found no additional coordinated Russian-linked accounts or Pages delivering ads to the UK regarding the EU Referendum during the relevant period, beyond the minimal activity we previously disclosed.”

At a hearing on social media political activity that the parliamentary committee held in Washington earlier in February, Milner had promised the panel it would disclose more results of its latest investigation by the end of February.

At the same hearing, Juniper Downs, YouTube’s global head of public policy, said that her company had “conducted a thorough investigation around the Brexit referendum and found no evidence of Russian interference.”

In his letter to the committee, Facebook’s Milner acknowledged that the minimal results in the company’s Brexit review contrasted with the results of Facebook inquiries into alleged Russian interference in U.S. politics. The company’s U.S. investigation results, Milner said, “comport with the recent indictments” Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller issued against Russian individuals and entities.

Following its Washington hearing, committee chairman Damian Collins MP said his committee expected to finish a report on its inquiry into Social Media and Fake News in late March and that the report is likely to include recommendations for new British laws or regulations regarding social media content.

These could include measures to clarify the companies’ legal liability for material they distribute and their obligations to address social problems the companies’ content could engender, he said.

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Could Winning Super Bowl Play Be Winning Marketing Ploy?

A company’s value is often tied to the message it portrays to customers. But what happens when other companies try to take advantage of your brand?

Take the Philadelphia Eagles, for instance. The American football team wants to exclusively own the phrase: “Philly Special.” That was the trick play that helped them win the Super Bowl, and the Philly Special is, by far, the most talked-about play of the Super Bowl.

Watch the play here:

It is a gutsy move. In football-speak, it is a direct-snap reverse pass to quarterback Nick Foles, who usually throws the ball. But the coach gives the OK, and Foles tells his teammates the plan in the huddle.

The team lines up, Foles runs up the field. Tight end Trey Burton throws the football, and Foles catches it in the end zone for a touchdown.

“Play of the century”

Now, the phrase, ‘Philly Special,’ has turned into a city-wide phenomena. Bakeries are making Philly Special pastries. Some people are getting the words or even a sketch of the play tattooed on themselves.

And stores, like Ashley Peel’s Philadelphia Independents, cannot keep enough Philly Special T-shirts in stock.

“It’s the ‘Nick Foles play of the century,’ as I’m dubbing it from the Super Bowl,” Peel said. “It has a layout of the [specifics] from the play. We just got it in and we’re almost already sold out of it. It’s definitely moving well.”

It’s moving well, even as several entrepreneurs are competing to be awarded a trademark — in other words, exclusive rights — to the phrase.  Many of the businesses filed their own trademark applications ahead of the Eagles.

“I do have a client that’s applied for the mark, ‘Philly Special,’” said Philadelphia-based lawyer Nancy Rubner Frandsen.

She filed a trademark application on behalf of a company called Whalehead Associates. She can’t comment too much about the application without violating attorney-client privilege, but admits the phrase goes beyond a football play.

“Obviously it brings everyone together, it was our Super Bowl championship that brought it all about,” she said. “It’s got the term ‘Philly’ in it — from the trademark standpoint, it would be deemed to be descriptive. But then you combine it with the term, ‘Special,’ and it could make a very unique trademark.”

Some of the other businesses that want to trademark the term include a sandwich maker, a gift shop manufacturer … and the Philadelphia Eagles. The team was actually the last to file a trademark application. Even so, experts say, it’s likely the rights will be awarded to the Eagles.

Newsjacking

“This particular term, ideally, should belong to the Eagles,” said Dr. Jay Sinha, an associate marketing professor at Temple University in Philadelphia.

He added the phenomenon around ‘Philly Special’ is not the first time there’s been a rush to trademark a term after a big event, like the Super Bowl. And it’s even got a name: ‘newsjacking.’

“The term, newsjacking, means where a company rides or takes advantage of some event happening in current affairs and uses it for their own commercial purposes, especially for marketing in branding,” Sinha said.

For example, think of famous movie lines, like: ‘May the force be with you,’ from “Stars Wars.” When sequels are released, other companies often try to take advantage of the film’s popularity for marketing purposes, like an ice cream shop that posts a sign reading, ‘May the swirl be with you.’

“If there’s anything which is relevant in popular culture as well as the news, companies like to ride on it,” Sinah said.

In this case, it likely will be several months before the U.S. Patent Office announces who will be awarded the rights to the now famous phrase. By then, though, another Super Bowl will be approaching and the excitement of the Philly Special could be fading.

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Walmart, Dick’s Sporting Goods Crack Down on Gun Sales  

Two major U.S. retailers changed their gun sales policies Wednesday in the fallout over a Florida high school massacre.

Walmart, the country’s biggest retailer, announced it is raising the age restriction for buying guns and ammunition to 21.

“We take seriously our obligation to be a responsible seller,” it said in a statement. 

Walmart is also dropping toys and other items that resemble assault-style weapons from its website. The retail giant stopped selling assault-style guns in 2015 and does not sell handguns except for its stores in Alaska.

Earlier Wednesday, Dick’s Sporting Goods announced it would no longer sell assault-style rifles or any gun to anyone younger than 21.

The chain went one step further and urged Congress to ban assault-style weapons and raise the minimum age.

The alleged Parkland high school shooter, Nikolas Cruz, used an AR-15.

Dick’s says Cruz had bought a shotgun at one of its stores after going though all the proper procedures, but stressed it was not the exact weapon or the type allegedly used in the Feb. 14 massacre. 

Both Walmart and Dick’s say they are committed to serving sportsmen, hunters, and the majority of gun owners whom they call law-abiding citizens.

WATCH: Dick’s Sporting Goods CEO: ‘We Don’t Want to be a Part of This Story’

 

The mass shooting of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School has had an impact on the corporate world, which is seemingly taking a close look at nationwide polls that overwhelmingly favor tighter gun laws.

More than a dozen major companies are ending discounts for members of the National Rifle Association (NRA). They include Delta Airlines, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, MetLife Insurance and Best Western Hotels. 

President Donald Trump, who has been a huge supporter of the NRA and whose campaign was a recipient of millions of dollars in NRA funds, said earlier this week that sometimes you just have to fight the NRA.

At a discussion on gun safety with U.S. lawmakers Wednesday, he also accused Republican politicians who have given tepid support for stronger gun laws of being “afraid” of the powerful pro-gun lobby group.

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Refugee Women Get a Taste of Entrepreneurship

When refugees arrive in a new country, they bring little to no material possessions. But many bring something more valuable: their talent and skills. Twenty refugee women and asylum seekers from different parts of the world recently came together at a pop-up store in Phoenix, Arizona, to display their homemade products and tell their compelling stories. VOA’s June Soh spoke with some of the women in this report narrated by Carol Pearson.

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New Operating Systems, Improved Cameras on Display at Barcelona’s Mobile Phone Congress

The world’s biggest mobile phone trade fair, the Mobile World Congress, or MWC, opened earlier this week in Barcelona, Spain. Except for Apple, which traditionally stays away, all other big and small phone manufacturers and developers are displaying their wares as they continue to battle a market valued at $478 billion in 2017. VOA’s George Putic has more.

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U.S. Attorney General Announces New Task Force to Combat Opioid Epidemic

Joined by several state attorneys general and the acting DEA administrator, U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions announced a new task force to crack down on opioid manufacturers and distributors. He also announced the hiring of a federal prosecutor to lead anti-opioid efforts at the Department of Justice. From Washington, VOA’s Jill Craig has more.

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Indexes Point to Cooling Growth in China This Year 

Growth in China’s manufacturing sector in February cooled to the weakest in more than 11/2 years, raising concerns of a sharper-than-expected slowdown in the world’s second biggest economy this year as regulators tighten the screws on financial risks.

The weakness was driven by disruption to business activity by the Lunar New Year holidays and curbs to factory output from tougher pollution rules, but there are worries of a bigger loss in momentum.

“Although a recovery looks possible in the short-run as the anti-pollution campaign winds down, the risk is still that the economy fares worse this year than is generally expected,” said Julian Evans-Pritchard, senior China Economist at Capital Economics.

Index raises concern

The official Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) released Wednesday fell to 50.3 in February, from 51.3 in January. But it remained above the 50-point mark that separates growth from contraction on a monthly basis, the 19th straight month of expansion.

The drop may raise some concerns for China’s leaders as they prepare for the start of the National People’s Congress (NPC) next week where Beijing will unveil its economic targets for this year.

Globally, solid demand has kept many export-reliant economies humming over the past year or so, though a move toward tighter policy in advanced nations could cut into growth this year.

The latest PMI’s subindex of new export orders fell to 49.0, the lowest in at least a year, as the yuan currency appreciated against the dollar.

Chen Zhongtao, an official with China Logistics Information Center (CLIC), said that “13.6 percent of firms reported concerns over the appreciating Chinese currency and greater currency fluctuations,” the highest number of companies to do so since March 2017.

CLIC said in a statement that export sluggishness is expected to continue this year as steel firms are more reluctant to ship goods in the face of rising global protectionism.

Lunar New Year effect

The index for output stood at 50.7, down from 53.5 in January as the Lunar New Year holidays disrupted factory activities, the statistics bureau said. Total new orders also expanded much slower in February.

Raw material input prices fell for the second consecutive month to the lowest since July 2017, indicating cost pressure from price rises on manufacturing firms is easing.

“I think besides the Lunar New Year factor, the stricter pollution measures in the north before the National People’s Congress might have weighed on activities as well,” said Betty Wang, Senior China Economist at ANZ.

Wang expects momentum to pick up in the months ahead as the pollution crackdown tapers off.

Still, there are signs that China may continue with the pollution crackdown, with top steelmaking city of Tangshan proposing new restrictions on production once the current curbs expire in March.

The weeklong Lunar New Year holidays, which fell in February this year but January in 2017, tend to distort data early in the year.

Many factories and offices start to scale back operations ahead of time before shutting for the entire holiday or longer, while some manufacturers front-load shipments or replenish inventories ahead of the break.

Moderating growth in 2018

Boosted by government infrastructure spending, a resilient property market and unexpected strength in exports, China’s manufacturing and industrial firms helped the economy post better-than-expected growth of 6.9 percent in 2017.

A sister survey showed activity in China’s service sector slowed to lowest since October last year in February. The official non-manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) fell to 54.4 from 55.3 in January.

The services sector accounts for more than half of China’s economy, with rising wages giving Chinese consumers more spending clout.

Chinese policymakers are counting on growth in services and consumption to rebalance their economic growth model from its heavy reliance on investment and exports.

Economists polled by Reuters expected China’s economic growth will moderate to around 6.5 percent this year as the property market cools and as authorities press ahead with a clamp down on riskier financial activity that is driving up borrowing costs.

Analysts and financial markets are widely expecting the government to announce a 2018 growth target of around 6.5 percent at the NPC, the same as last year.

A composite PMI covering both the manufacturing and services activity stood at 52.9 in February, down from January’s reading of 54.6.

“Looking ahead, we think growth is likely to fall short of expectations this year, with many underestimating the headwinds from slower credit growth and a cooling property sector,” Capital Economics’ Evans-Pritchard said.

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US Proposes Anti-dumping Duties on Chinese Aluminum Foil

The U.S. Commerce Department on Tuesday recommended raising import duties on Chinese-made aluminum foil it said is being sold at unfairly low prices due to improper subsidies to producers.

 

The ruling was praised by the Aluminum Association, a trade group that pressed the case and said cheap imports were threatening thousands of jobs.

 

Beijing faces complaints from the United States, European Union and other trading partners that a flood of Chinese aluminum, steel and other exports are being sold at unfairly low prices, threatening jobs abroad.

 

The Commerce Department said it concluded Chinese exporters were selling aluminum foil at 49 to 106 percent below fair value and were receiving unfair subsidies of 17 to 81 percent of the goods’ value.

 

Importers will have to post cash bonds to pay potentially higher duties while the recommendation goes to the U.S. International Trade Commission for a final decision, said a Commerce statement.

 

China’s Ministry of Commerce complained Washington was harming Chinese exporters and said Beijing was ready to take unspecified “necessary measures” to defend its interests.

 

Beijing has accused Trump’s government of disrupting global trade regulation by taking action under U.S. law instead of through the World Trade Organization.

 

“China will take necessary measures to defend its interests in response to the wrong practice of the United States,” said a Commerce Ministry official, Wang Hejun, in a statement.

 

The Trump administration earlier raised duties on Chinese-made washing machines, solar modules and some aluminum and steel products to offset what it said were improper subsidies.

 

The American Chamber of Commerce in China says Chinese officials have warned of possible unspecified retaliation if Washington took excessive steps in trade disputes.

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Three Astronauts Back on Earth After Space Station Mission

Three astronauts returned from the International Space Station to the snowy, bitingly cold flat lands of Central Asia, ending a 5½-month mission highlighted by robotic renovations, schoolteacher pep talks and heavenly greetings from Pope Francis.

The two Americans and one Russian landed in a Soyuz capsule shortly after sunrise Wednesday, local time, in Kazakhstan, where the temperature was below freezing. Flight controllers feared snow and freezing rain might hamper recovery efforts, but NASA said the weather wasn’t nearly as bad as had been feared and the pickup teams got to where they needed to be.

NASA’s Joe Acaba and Mark Vande Hei, and Russia’s Alexander Misurkin emerged from the capsule one by one, smiling, waving and pumping their fists in the air as they were carried to outdoor chairs. Medical staff wrapped them in thick blankets, while taking their pulse and making sure they were fine.

The astronauts checked out of the space station just a few hours earlier, hugging the three men remaining behind.

“We’re already missing you,” radioed station commander Anton Shkaplerov as the capsule backed away.

McAuliffe experiments

In handing over the skipper’s job to Shkaplerov, Misurkin joked that at least he and his two crewmates didn’t break anything and hopefully accomplished some good science. They’d lived on the space station since September.

Acaba is the first astronaut of Puerto Rican heritage and a former schoolteacher. He teamed up with another educator-astronaut, Ricky Arnold, who’s launching in three weeks, to perform the science lessons prepared by Christa McAuliffe 32 years ago. She died in the shuttle Challenger launch disaster.

During a series of spacewalks spanning months, Acaba and Vande Hei helped replace the aging mechanical hands of the station’s big robot arm. And last fall, they had a chance to chat with Pope Francis, discussing the beauty and fragility of the home planet.

As is customary, NASA planned to hustle Acaba and Vande Hei back to Houston, with Misurkin heading to cosmonaut headquarters at Star City, Russia.

A replacement crew, including former teacher Arnold, will lift off from Kazakhstan on March 21 and bring the space station back up to a full crew of six.

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US Task Force Will Target Opioid Crisis ‘at Its Root’

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new initiative Tuesday that will target painkiller manufacturers and distributors who overprescribe and allow the misuse of prescription drugs by addicts.  The initiative, Sessions said, will tackle the opioid crisis “at its root.” 

The Prescription Interdiction and Litigation (PIL) Task Force will “use criminal and civil actions” to ensure that prescription painkiller manufacturers and distributors adhere to Drug Enforcement Administration rules against diversion and over-prescription of pain drugs.

 

WATCH: U.S. Attorney General Announces New Task Force to Combat Opioid Epidemic

The task force will use the False Claims Act to target pain management clinics, drug testing facilities and doctors who improperly prescribe opioids, the Justice Department said. 

“Over the past year, the Department has vigorously fought the prescription opioid crisis, and we are determined to continue making progress,” Sessions said at a press conference in Washington. “Today, we are opening a new front in the war on the opioid crisis by bringing all of our anti-opioid efforts under one banner. We have no time to waste.”

Over-prescription of painkillers

Rampant over-prescription of painkillers have long been seen as a driving force of the opioid crisis in the United States. The vast majority of opioid addicts start off with prescription painkillers before switching to heroin, the synthetic opioid fentanyl and other more potent drugs.

The United States, which represents less than five percent of the global population, consumed more than 30 percent of the world’s opioid supply in 2015, according to the International Narcotics Control Board.

“It is estimated that we use many times more opioids than is medically necessary for a population our size,” Sessions said.

In 2016, a record 64,000 Americans died of drug overdoses, most of them from opioid painkillers, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Preliminary data indicate 2017 “was even worse, albeit with a much smaller increase,” Sessions said.

Leading cause of death

Amid the opioid epidemic, drug overdose has become the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50. 

“These are not acceptable trends, and this new task force will make us more effective in reversing them and saving Americans from the scourge of opioid addiction,” Sessions said.

The attorney general said the newly created task force of senior officials from across the Justice Department will also review pending state and local lawsuits against opioid manufacturers and distributors to determine what support the Justice Department can lend to those legal efforts.

To that end, the Justice Department plans to file a “statement of interest” in support of hundreds of lawsuits brought against opioid manufacturers and distributors, Sessions said.

The lawsuits, filed by a number of cities, municipalities and medical institutions, seek to recover the costs associated with providing treatment and public safety measures instituted in response to the drug crisis.

Medicare pays for opioids

The Department of Justice will argue that federal agencies have borne substantial costs as a result of the opioid crisis and seek reimbursement.

In 2016, the federally funded Medicare prescription drug program paid more than $4 billion for opioids, according to Sessions.

The attorney general described the creation of the task force as the latest in a series of steps the justice Department has taken to combat an epidemic that is showing few signs of letting up.

Last month, Sessions announced a 45-day surge of DEA agents to focus on pharmacies and prescribers who were dispensing an unusual or disproportionate amount of drugs.

Last year, President Donald Trump declared the opioid epidemic a “public health emergency,” but critics say the declaration was not followed by the deployment of additional resources to tackle the crisis.

Sessions, however, defended the administration’s commitment to combating the epidemic, saying the Justice Department has taken “historic new actions to reverse the rising tide of addiction and death.”

Among the steps, he cited the indictment of more than 120 defendants, including doctors, the takedown of a Dark Net drug bazaar and the creation of a unit to detect evidence of overprescription and opioid-related health fraud.

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Ford, Miami to Form Test Bed for Self-driving Cars

Ford Motor Co. is making Miami-Dade County its new test bed for self-driving vehicles.

The automaker and its partners — Domino’s Pizza, ride-hailing company Lyft and delivery company Postmates — are starting pilot programs to see how consumers react to autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles. Self-driving startup and Ford partner Argo AI already has a fleet of cars in the area making the highly detailed maps that are necessary for self-driving. Ford also will establish its first-ever autonomous vehicle terminal in Miami, where it will learn how to service and deploy its test fleet.

More services will likely be introduced as the partnership goes on, including Chariot, an app-based shuttle service owned by Ford. It’s all part of Ford’s effort to find viable business models for fully autonomous vehicles and get them on the road by 2021.

“This is, I think, the future of any automotive company or mobility company. If a majority of the world’s population is going to be living in cities, we need to understand how to move those people around,” said John Kwant, Ford’s vice president of city solutions, who inked the deal with Miami-Dade.

Ford isn’t the first automaker to run test fleets of autonomous vehicles. General Motors Co. will start testing autonomous vehicles in New York City this year, while Nissan Motor Co. is launching an autonomous taxi service in Yokohama, Japan, next week. Technology companies like Waymo — a division of Google — are also testing self-driving vehicles on public roads in Phoenix, San Francisco and Singapore, among other cities.

But the partnership with a specific metropolitan is less common. Both sides envision a deep relationship where Ford can help Miami-Dade solve specific issues, like how to most efficiently move people from its suburbs to its downtown monorail, and Miami-Dade can offer solutions like dedicated lanes for automated vehicles or infrastructure projects like advanced traffic lights that can send signals to connected cars. 

“We want to be on the forefront of this because we want to give our people choices,” said Carlos Gimenez, the mayor of Miami-Dade County, which is home to 34 cities and 2.7 million people. 

Traffic congestion a concern

Sherif Marakby, Ford’s vice president of autonomous vehicles and electrification, says the company also intends to work closely with local businesses. The company wants to learn, for example, how a florist might use an autonomous delivery vehicle.

“Autonomous vehicle technology is interesting, but it’s a whole lot more interesting with a viable business model,” he said.

The city of Miami is the fifth-most congested in the U.S., according to a recent traffic study by the consulting firm Inrix. After more than a century of selling people vehicles, Kwant says Ford now wants to figure out ways to move people more efficiently in order to cut down on that time in traffic.

Making money

Sam Abuelsamid, a senior research analyst with the consulting firm Navigant Research, says Ford and others must figure out how to make money on self-driving cars.

“If this does take off, if people do adopt automated vehicles and use them for ride-hailing, that’s going to result in a decline in retail vehicle sales,” Abuelsamid said. “They need to figure out, if we’re going to have a decline in the number of vehicles we sell to consumers, how do we keep our business stable?”

Kwant says the testing will also help Ford determine what its future self-driving vehicles need to look like and how they must perform.

“If you don’t have steering wheels, how do you begin to use that package space? How do you begin to look different in terms of carrying more people?” he said.

Ford won’t say how many vehicles it will have on the road in Miami-Dade, but says it will be Ford’s largest test bed for autonomous vehicles by the end of this year. 

Backup safety drivers

All of the vehicles will have backup safety drivers. Domino’s experimental vehicles aren’t even technically autonomous; they’re equipped to be, but for now they have actual drivers. The windows are blacked out so customers can experience how to get pizza from the car without dealing with a person.  

Miami will give Ford new challenges. Previously, it tested Domino’s cars in suburban Michigan, where parking wasn’t an issue. But in busy Miami Beach, the cars will have to figure out where they can go to allow apartment-dwellers to safely retrieve their pizzas. An autonomous delivery vehicle from Postmates might have to switch between Spanish and English commands when it picks up a meal and delivers it to a customer. Self-driving Lyft vehicles will be tasked with mapping out the best places to wait for customers without causing more traffic headaches.

Kwant says Ford will announce more city partnerships as this year progresses. But Miami-Dade was a natural, since it has good weather, lots of different urban and suburban terrain and support from Gimenez and other government leaders.

Cheaper and safer

Gimenez, who began talking to Ford in 2017 at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, says he’s not worried about consumer acceptance of self-driving cars. He thinks his community will embrace them as companies prove that shared autonomous vehicles can be cheaper and safer than regular ones.

Gimenez says self-driving vehicles also can potentially improve traffic flow without significant new investments in roadways. They can travel more closely together, for example, because they’re always watching the car in front of them and can brake automatically.

“That’s why I’m really high on this technology,” he said.

 

 

 

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White House Reaches Informal Deal with Boeing for Air Force One

U.S. President Donald Trump has reached an agreement with the Boeing Co to provide two Air Force One planes for $3.9 billion, the White House said on Tuesday.

“President Trump has reached an informal deal with Boeing on a fixed-price contract for the new Air Force One Program,” Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley told Reuters. He said the contract will save taxpayers more than $1.4 billion, but those savings could not be independently confirmed.

Trump has said Boeing’s costs to build replacements for Air Force One aircraft – one of the most visible symbols of the U.S. presidency – were too high and urged the federal government in a tweet to “Cancel order!”

The Boeing 747-8s are designed to be an airborne White House able to fly in worst-case security scenarios, such as nuclear war, and are modified with military avionics, advanced communications and a self-defense system.

“President Trump negotiated a good deal on behalf of the American people,” Boeing said in a news release.

U.S. aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia said the White House was engaging in “political theater.”

“There’s no evidence of a discount,” said Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at Teal Group.

Earlier this month, the Pentagon released Air Force budget documents for fiscal year 2019 disclosing the $3.9 billion cost for the two-aircraft program. The same 2018 budget document, not adjusted for inflation, showed the price at $3.6 billion.

Boeing would only have so much room to offer discounts given the high proportion of supplier content on Air Force One, from refrigerators to missile warning systems, Aboulafia said by phone.

The big U.S. defense contractor said the deal includes work to develop and build two planes, including unique items such as a communications package, internal and external stairs, large galleys and other equipment.

The “informal deal” will need to be codified in a formal contract with comprehensive, complex terms and conditions said Franklin Turner, a partner specializing in government contracts at law firm McCarter & English, suggesting a final deal was still a ways off.

Boeing stock was up 1.4 percent at $368.54, trading at an all-time high.

 

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Fed’s Powell Nods to ‘Gradual’ Rate Hikes, Close eye on Inflation

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, pledging to “strike a balance” between the risk of an overheating economy and the need to keep growth on track, told U.S. lawmakers on Tuesday that the central bank would stick with gradual interest rate increases despite the added stimulus of tax cuts and government spending.

Fed policymakers anticipate three rate increases this year, and Powell gave no indication in prepared remarks to the House Financial Services Committee that the pace needs to quicken even as the “tailwinds” of government stimulus and a stronger world economy propel the U.S. recovery.

“The [Federal Open Market Committee] will continue to strike a balance between avoiding an overheating economy and bringing … price inflation to 2 percent on a sustained basis,” Powell said in prepared remarks for his first monetary policy testimony to Congress as Fed chief.

“Some of the headwinds the U.S. economy faced in previous years have turned into tailwinds,” Powell said, noting recent fiscal policy shifts and the global economic recovery. Still, “inflation remains below our 2 percent longer-run objective. In the (FOMC‘s) view, further gradual rate increases in the federal funds rate will best promote attainment of both of our objectives.”

The testimony sent Powell’s first signal as Fed chief that the massive tax overhaul and government spending plan launched by the Trump administration will not prompt any immediate shift to a faster pace of rate increases. “Gradual” has been the operative word since the Fed began raising rates under Powell’s predecessor, Janet Yellen, in late 2015.

The Fed is expected to approve its first rate increase of 2018 at the next policy meeting in March, when it will also provide fresh economic projections and Powell will hold his first press conference.

“This is a continuation of where this Fed was under Chair Yellen,” said Robert Albertson, principal and chief strategist at Sandler O‘Neill & Partners in New York.

“They are normalizing, they are not tightening … The surprises, if we are going to see them, are going to be after more data comes out in the next month or two,” and accounts for things like the tax cuts and whether business investment spending continues higher, he said.

Market reaction was muted. U.S. stocks were trading slightly lower while the dollar .DXY was stronger against a basket of currencies. Prices of U.S. Treasuries were mixed.

Valuation pressures

Powell’s appearance before the House panel is his first as Fed chief. He used his prepared remarks to strike notes likely to be welcomed by the Republican majority on the panel – including promises of “transparency” and a nod to the monetary policy rules some of them favor.

“I am committed to clearly explaining what we are doing and why we are doing it,” Powell said.

But in his remarks and in a monetary policy report issued to Congress by the Fed last week he also stuck close to a safe script, mentioning none of the new initiatives that some of his colleagues have pushed for, such as a review of the Fed’s system for managing inflation.

That report acknowledged “valuation pressures” in parts of the economy, and noted the recent return of volatility in stock markets.

Though rising long-term interest rates and recent equity market volatility have tightened financial conditions, Powell said, “we do not see these developments as weighing heavily on the outlook for economic activity, the labor market and inflation.”

Rather, “the robust job market should continue to support growth in household incomes and consumer spending, solid economic growth among our trading partners should lead to further gains in U.S. exports, and upbeat business sentiment and strong sales growth will likely continue to boost business investment,” he said.

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Sources: Trump to Consider Biofuels Policy Tweaks at Tuesday Meeting

U.S. President Donald Trump will meet with senators and Cabinet officials on Tuesday to discuss ways to lower the cost of the nation’s biofuels policy to oil refiners, according to sources familiar with the matter.

The meeting reflects rising concern in the White House over the current state of the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard, a law requiring refiners to mix biofuels such as corn-based ethanol into their fuel, after a Pennsylvania refiner blamed the regulation for its recent bankruptcy.

The meeting will include Republican Senators Ted Cruz of Texas, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst of corn state Iowa, along with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, according to the sources.

The meeting will also include White House legislative director Marc Short, who will seek to ensure any agreement can be achieved through executive orders and regulatory actions defensible in court, the sources said.

Representatives for those officials, and the White House, declined to comment.

U.S. farm groups urged Trump in a letter on Monday not to weaken the RFS, calling it a critical engine of rural jobs. “Any action that seeks to weaken the RFS for the benefit of a handful of refiners will, by extension, be borne on the backs of our farmers,” according to the letter.

Under the RFS, refiners must earn or purchase biofuel blending credits called RINs to prove to the federal government that enough biofuels are being blended into their gasoline and diesel to comply with the policy.

As biofuels volumes quotas have increased over the years, however, so have prices for the credits – meaning refiners that buy them instead of acquire them by blending fuels themselves are facing rising costs.

Oil refiner Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES), which employs more than 1,000 people in a key electoral state, declared bankruptcy last month and blamed the regulation for its demise. Reuters reported other factors may also have played a role in the company’s bankruptcy, including the withdrawal of more than $590 million in dividend-style payments from the company by its investor owners.

Two of the sources familiar with the agenda of the Tuesday meeting said at least four options aimed at reducing the cost of RINs to refiners like PES will be considered — though they noted the effort would be constrained by political and legal realities that have derailed previous reform efforts.

Prices of RINs tumbled by nearly 20 percent in the past week on expectations of a regulatory tweak.

One idea would be to count U.S. ethanol exports toward annual biofuels volumes mandates that are currently focused purely on domestic usage, an idea the sources said had been studied by Agriculture Secretary Perdue who now favors it.

Another idea would be to place a cap on the price of a RIN.

Senator Cruz late last year suggested capping RIN prices at 10 cents each, far below the current value of over 60 cents, in a move that was roundly rejected by biofuels advocates.

The meeting will also consider measures to remove speculation from the RIN market, potentially by limiting RIN transactions to those directly involved in generating and consuming them: blenders and refiners, the sources said.

Any plan would also likely include a concession to the ethanol industry, they said, such as a waiver to allow gasoline containing 15 percent ethanol to be sold year round. Sales of high-ethanol blends are currently restricted in the summer due to concerns over smog.

The meeting could also look at solutions focused more directly on refiner PES — like waiving its current RIN obligation valued at about $350 million, the sources said. But any such move would likely draw a backlash from other refiners who have no hope of receiving such a waiver.

 

 

 

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