The more I learn about Elon Musk’s Boring Project—a batshit idea to build a tunnel that sends cars at breakneck speeds under Los Angeles—the more I want to take a ride. The twisted genius just posted video of a test sled zooming through a test tunnel. Holy shit, it’s like going into hyperspeed, and I want to ride! And…
Was the Segway ahead of its time, or just an overhyped product that could have never lived up to the anticipation? Being pricier than a used car didn’t help the original Segway’s chances, but at least now, electrical engineer Olaf Winkler has solved that problem with a ball-based self-balancing scooter that features a…
Markeisha Fowlkes needed a car so she could drive a bus.
The single mother of two worked as a bus driver in Los Angeles but lived in Long Beach, California, and the 25-mile, one-way commute—which didn't even include getting her children to school—made a vehicle of her own a necessity.
So in 2015, Fowlkes saved up enough to purchase a Dodge Charger from a small independent seller, Ace Auto Dealership. As is common at car dealers across America, Fowlkes drove off the lot without registration while the dealer arranged the transfer of ownership with the state DMV. But three weeks later, Ace Auto asked that Fowlkes return the car, claiming it couldn't find a third-party lender. Because Ace Auto refused to return her $2,000 downpayment, Fowlkes declined to turn over the vehicle, instead making her pre-arranged payments. But her permanent registration and license plates never arrived.
In California, new car owners have 90 days to obtain permanent license plates. After that was when Fowlkes began to attract attention from law enforcement. "They thought the car was stolen," she told me. "I got pulled over so many times, my kids would see a cop and say, 'We're going to get pulled over!'" She took to keeping the dealer sale paper in her glove compartment and would have to sweet talk the police out of ticketing her.
Once, the father of Fowlkes's children was stopped while driving the car, and he had an outstanding warrant, landing him in jail, she said. After yet another stop, police impounded the car. "I went to the police department, but I only had the bill of sale," she told me, explaining how she could not get the car released without documents proving ownership. She had to walk six miles home from Seal Beach that day.
If nothing else, though, the impounding did help Fowlkes find out why Ace Autos would always deflect her questions: An officer told her that the car had over $5,000 in unpaid parking tickets, which the dealer would have to pay off to secure title or ownership. By never forwarding Fowlkes's information to the DMV, the dealer saved money but also turned Markeisha Fowlkes into a target for cops.
"I got myself into something I never wanted," she told me.
Fowlkes's situation is more common than you might expect. Across America, used car dealers sell unregistered vehicles to unsuspecting consumers and then never supply them with legit papers. Drivers have been handcuffed, searched, detained, and essentially terrorized for buying a car from the wrong dealer.
The situation adds another layer to the struggles of the working class in the United States. Without access to reliable public transportation, and without the money to buy new vehicles that sell for well over $30,000 on average, millions opt for used car lots. But in addition to scams like "buy here pay here" deals and subprime auto financing, used car buyers like Markeisha Fowlkes must contend with the risk of being criminalized for a legal purchase.
Consumers have few places to turn for help. Auto dealers are typically pillars of their local communities, sources of millions of dollars in campaign donations and lobbying. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the best bet for consumers at the federal level, is actually barred from scrutinizing auto dealers, because the industry secured an exemption from oversight in 2010. Consumer lawsuits are rare, because like with many other financial contracts, standard used car deals include mandatory arbitration agreements that force dispute resolution out of court. (And Donald Trump used arbitration widely in his own business dealings, so don't expect that to change under the new administration.)
"Car dealers are notoriously influential at every level," said Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, an advocacy group.
That leaves people like Markeisha Fowlkes, who lack the political power of the auto dealer industry, to take their chances with shady cars. Some have no other way to get around and can't afford to put their cars up on blocks for months while trying to straighten things out. And although finance companies companies cannot legally collect payment without title, and can be held responsible for wrongful acts by the dealer, attorneys say lenders often demand money from buyers by threatening their credit ratings.
"I have to suck it up," Fowlkes said. "I can't stop my life because they didn't do what they were supposed to do."
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The used car business varies from state to state, with a process that includes applications, dealer exams, criminal background checks, and even a surety bond (a promise by a third party to pay claims if the dealer cannot). But bond requirements can be as low as $10,000 in states like Michigan, not enough to cover more than a couple of rip-offs. And the weeding out of bad actors depends on stringent enforcement, which is often lacking. "In some places, you need only a few hours to complete a course with the DMV," said Alicia Hinton, an attorney in Fresno, California, who represents clients who got screwed by dealers.
And the business is loaded with opportunity for schemes of all kinds.
"Any time a vehicle is sold and the title is not present, it opens up the opportunity for fraud," added Richard Diklitch, an expert witness in auto fraud cases. While some states, like Virginia, require that dealers issue certificates transferring title before cars leave the lots, many others don't.
Typically, used car dealers acquire their vehicles from private sellers in a trade-in, rental car companies, or auto auctions, and they often try to find ways around having to formally procure title before sale. If they waited the approximately 20 days auction houses allow to transfer title from the seller, or the 60 days most state DMVs get to process paperwork, they would be stuck with dead inventory on their lots.
Smaller mom-and-pop dealers are more likely to drag things out, some advocates say. Unlike their larger counterparts, many small dealers don't have an in-house staffer to handle paperwork, or can't afford to spend the day waiting in line at the DMV. In other cases, it's a simple cash flow problem. "Many of these dealers are financing a car at a time," said Hinton. "They don't have the money to pay DMV fees."
This lack of administrative muscle becomes more important when transactions get messy. Sometimes there are outstanding liens on the vehicle, like traffic tickets or registration fees or an insurance claim from an accident. Sometimes a customer traded in the car with negative equity, with more owed on the car than it's worth. Dealers may not have the funds—or, you know, the desire—to pay off those obligations. Sometimes the car is registered out of state, making the paperwork more time consuming. And then there are dealers that just want to make sure the buyer turns in their initial payments on the transaction before making it official.
Any of these scenarios can slow down the transfer of ownership—and increase the chances an unsuspecting buyer will get targeted by the law.
After temporary registrations expire, drivers are left at the mercy of police. "You become susceptible to be interrogated, or if the officer wanted, arrested," said Diklitch. "Unfortunately, the consumer doesn't have a good choice. They don't have options other than walking."
Steven Simons, an attorney in Woodland Hills, California, told me that more than one of his clients has been pulled over, searched, and detained because of an unregistered vehicle. He described one case where the same buyer got pulled over four times in a month before learning that the dealer never turned in the paperwork. "One guy lost his license because he could not afford to pay all the tickets," Simons said.
Taras Rudnitsky, a lawyer from Longwood, Florida, recalled a client who was sold the same car by two dealers; one took the down payment, and another arranged financing. The only problem was that neither actually owned the car. The vehicle had been repossessed with an outstanding lien, and that financing company went out of business after delivering the car. The woman who bought the thing kept it unused in her driveway for years. "She's got a hunk of metal that she can't sell," Rudnitsky said. "As a practical matter, nobody owns it."
Drivers have few options to get out of a mess like this other than badgering dealers. "There's nothing a consumer can do to make the dealer give them the title," said Bob Eppes, a former official with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "You can scream and holler all you want."
Not only are drivers susceptible to being pulled over, the lack of registration can make it harder to acquire insurance. Or as Dani Liblang, an attorney from Birmingham, Michigan, put it, "It's a menace to everyone else on the highway as well."
One of Liblang's clients was injured in a rear-end accident with a vehicle that had no valid title. Under state law, the original dealer retained ownership, meaning the buyer had to sue to get the claim satisfied. In cases where the car is uninsured, the chance of receiving payment is remote because of the low $10,000 surety bond requirement in Michigan.
Perhaps worst of all, according to consumer attorneys and advocates, many small dealers cater to minority communities with middling financial literacy. Arlyn Escalante, a lawyer in San Diego, has a number of clients who purchased vehicles from small dealerships that target Spanish speakers. "They're completely friendly at first, and when the client goes back to complain, they change," Escalante said. "They say 'I know about your [immigration] status.' To make people scared."
Attorney Alicia Hinton alleges that some dealers outright defraud customers. "A very common scenario: The dealer has title and transfers it to the lender, but makes sure the registration tags come to the dealership, not the buyer. So the buyer comes down, and the dealer asks for more money [in order to give up the tags]." Hinton says she's heard of dealers charging anywhere from $60 to $600 to get the car street legal after the initial purchase.
State DMVs and their investigative units can be the first line of defense against this abuse. And some states, like Florida, do a decent job of hounding dealers to turn in paperwork, according to attorney Rudnitsky. But most state DMVs have large case backlogs, and even true-blue California seems more interested in catching unregistered vehicles than helping drivers out of a registration nightmare: Recent legislation enables the state Highway Patrol to scan license tags and impound any expired vehicle. This could essentially become a total loss, since drivers cannot regain possession of their cars without establishing ownership.
Smaller dealers can also evade responsibility by closing up shop, leaving angry customers in the lurch. Sometimes the dealers start back up weeks later under a relative's name. "I have this fancy, ugly list of dealers in town," Hinton said. "Who they are, who owns them, who they pop up as the next time. It's a sad state of affairs that I have to keep track."
Because so many small dealers go in and out of business, it was hard to get an explanation for the litany of angry allegations leveled by people I spoke to for this article. Many of the dealers mentioned here appear to no longer operate—or at least not under the same business name. A spokesman for the National Independent Automobile Dealers Association did not respond to a request for comment.
"I would get pulled over, hassled by the police, because the car was registered to a Hispanic male. I'm clearly not Eduardo."—Mayesha Charlton
Mayesha Charlton, a medical assistant with two kids, never got registration on a car she purchased in 2012. At the time, she lived in Santa Paula, California, a small mountain town. "There's no bus service, no taxi," she said. "If you are not mobile, you don't leave that town." With her job in Ventura a 25-minute drive away, Charlton had to keep using her car even as she waited for the tags to, one day maybe come through.
"I would get pulled over, hassled by the police, because the car was registered to a Hispanic male," Charlton, who is African American, said. "I'm clearly not Eduardo."
After the first offense, Charlton got a "fix-it" ticket for $500, and the dealer, Cars Yes of Reseda, not only failed to take care of it, "they denied I ever purchased the car." The paperwork on the sale was filled out under Magic Auto, a dealer that's now defunct, even though the car was purchased at Cars Yes (on the site of a former Magic Auto lot) and the paper plates on the vehicle bore the Cars Yes name.
Eventually, Charlton's employer garnished the $500 from her wages, after the state demanded the debt payment. She visited attorney Steven Simons, and after a protracted legal battle received a jury verdict, later paid in full. When asked about this, an employee from Cars Yes denied that Charlton ever bought a car from them, saying "I don't have any records of that lady." An attempt to reach the owner was unsuccessful.
After Charlton purchased another used car from a larger dealership, it, too, waited months to deliver registration, during which time she got two more fix-it tickets. (After we initially spoke, Charlton eventually got that registration—six months after the initial purchase.)
As I was first discussing this saga with her over the phone, I could hear sirens in the background. Charlton was driving and got pulled over in the middle of our conversation. Her mother, also in the car, admonished her to be respectful, alluding to the shooting death of Philando Castile in Minnesota after a traffic stop. This was the "Talk" in real time.
Which is to say sketchy dealers flaking on registration isn't just a hassle for drivers—it puts them at risk for unpredictable encounters with law enforcement, during a tense time in police and community relations. "If you're black, Hispanic, the chances are much greater than when you get pulled over, the car is searched or impounded," said Hinton, the attorney.
"Is the vehicle registered in your name, ma'am?" I heard the officer ask Charlton near the end of our conversation.
"It should be," she replied. "This is the whole problem!"
This story was published with support from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a nonprofit devoted to journalism about inequality.
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Barring a major shakeup in the US Congress, this month former Texas governor Rick Perry and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt will be confirmed as the new Secretary of Energy and head of the Environmental Protection Agency, respectively. Like most of Donald Trump's cabinet appointees, Perry and Pruitt come to their new positions with less-than-stellar approval ratings, and large, vocal opposition parties behind them.
Like it or not, though, Perry and Pruitt—together with Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao—will be responsible for defending, supporting, and growing our renewable energy sources and transit infrastructure on the federal level in the coming years, at what is arguably one of the most crucial moments in environmental history. As fossil fuels continue to deplete our natural resources and negatively impact our climate, leaders from around the world are starting to seriously rethink their understanding of how cities work—and how technology works within them.
Last month, Ford gathered four mayors from across the US to discuss their visions for the "city of tomorrow," as well as how they're beginning to turn these visions into reality. "Cities today are the economic, the cultural, and the intellectual energy of our economy in this country," said Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, "and if you don't invest in them you're not interested in the self-interest of America."
Though no two cities are alike, the conversation between Emanuel, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther, and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan generated a some key takeaways: public transit is on the rise, and will continue to be as we shift towards a more egalitarian transportation model; road maintenance needs to be prioritized in order to make way for new technologies; and private funding is quickly becoming the way for local government to take infrastructure projects from idea to reality. Here, we look at how some of the country's most populated cities are using these tools to push towards a brighter, greener, more eco-friendly future.
"People today see driving as something that gets in the way of their texting," joked Emanuel during this year's annual North American International Auto Show in Detroit. True or not, the point the mayor makes is clear: "Time is now what people are considering a greater value than anything else."
As ridesharing apps like Uber, Lyft, and Chariot continue to grow, public transportation is becoming an increasingly large priority for city governments across the US. In addition to adding more buses, trains, and subway stops—or, in Los Angeles' case an entire new metro line—public leaders are striving to create transportation that meets the needs of a young, demanding workforce.
In Chicago, that meant equipping all of the city's trains with a reliable wireless network. In 2015, the city inked a $32.5 million deal, whereby AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint paid to install, operate, and manage 4G technology in all of Chicago's trains, which in turn would generate more active use across their respective data plans. Chicago has since become the largest US public transport system with 4G in all its stations and tunnels.
Detroit's $142 million dollar Q-Line, which is scheduled to open this spring, will run along the city's Woodward Avenue corridor, which is home to 36,000 residents and 135,000 jobs. The wifi-equipped streetcar will run on a mix of wire and lithium battery power, following in the footsteps of other smart streetcar cities like Kansas City and Atlanta.
Elsewhere, the rise in smart public transportation is taking the form of city-run bike shares, which are growing in established markets and popping up in new ones. In 2016 alone, Los Angeles, Portland, Oregon, and Cleveland, Ohio all launched bike sharing programs, while New York's long-running Citi Bike announced it would expand to all five boroughs, probably by this year.
Likewise, 2016 saw Chicago's Divvy program pushing further into the suburbs with an $800,000 expansion. In San Francisco, Bay Area Bike Share recently announced that they'll be teaming with Ford and increasing their bike fleet ten-fold, from 700 to 7,000 in 2017.
The story of Detroit's economic redemption has been widely reported since it began back in 2014. Less than three years after filing for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, the city has ushered in a new generation of small businesses, along with big companies like Amazon, Adient, and Little Caesar's, bringing with them thousands of jobs and an increasingly large millennial constituency. But, as Mayor Mike Duggan is quick to point out, fixing Detroit's unemployment problem was only half the battle.
Of the many improvements undertaken during his tenure, one of Duggan's biggest success stories has been Detroit's new LED streetlights. "Half of the city's street lights were out when I came into office," Duggan recalls. "Out of necessity, we put in 65,000 LED streetlights in the last three years, which makes Detroit the largest city in America with 100% LED lighting. And these LED lights aren't just lights—they're computers with all kinds of applications that attached to them. You can spot potholes, black ice, traffic accidents, you can communicate to cars."
Funding the Future
Skeptics of the lush, clean, and traffic-free cities that companies like Ford are championing tend to point out one major flaw in the plan: money. Automated cars, smart traffic signals, and fully integrated public transportation requires pristine roads and state-of-the-art monitoring systems in order to work. Building and rehabbing that much infrastructure would require a huge increase in state and federal spending at a time when the federal government is trying to crawl out of an $18.6 trillion debt.
This, city officials say, is where the private sector comes in. "The folks that I work for and with are all looking for regional approaches and public-private partnerships," says Columbus, Ohio Mayor Andrew Ginther. In Chicago, Emanuel has heavily relied on TIF programs to fund projects like the recent $2.5 million rebuild of the Red Line. "It's basically a infrastructure bank in embryonic stages. You can leverage private sector money and you don't need any help from the federal government," he says.
"We have to find different modes and ways to build," adds Ginther, whose city won the Department of Transportation's Smart Cities Challenge last year. Columbus's winning vision for its new transportation system earned the city up to $40 million from the DoT and $10 million from Microsoft co-founder Paul Alan's Vulcan Inc., as well as an additional $90 million from local Ohio businesses. In California, the Presidio Parkway stands as the state's first transportation project developed through a public-private-partnership, or P3—but it's certainly nothing new. P3s, experts say, are fast becoming the financing mode of choice for local infrastructure projects across the US. Whether or not this signals the slow death of federal financing for local projects is still to be determined, but until then, it's offering up another viable option for local officials.
"City government is the government that's most immediate and intimate to how people live their lives," says Emanuel. "Washington is Disneyland on the Potomac, and it's going to get more like it in the next four years… Train stations, parks, playgrounds, neighborhood libraries—that's how people think of government that touches their lives. It's a great opportunity for us, and it opens up a great opportunity for people to tell us what they think of what we're doing."
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A computer model developed by researchers at MIT shows that just 3,000 Uber and Lyft vehicles, when carpooled, could replace New York City’s entire 14,000-strong taxi fleet. It’s a finding that highlights the potential for ridesharing apps to revolutionize transportation in big cities.
New Year’s Eve might be the best party night of the year, but it can also be the most stressful, from losing your phone to the far more perilous drive home. Here are a few things you can do now to stay safe and sane this New Year’s.