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Tuesday
Aug142012

Robot Cars and Shell Games in Florida

It was very interesting to watch this video opposing Jeff Brandes in his bid for the Florida State Senate:

It’s probably the first political attack ad (political ad in general) to focus on driverless vehicles.  And there’s just so much to dig into!  It’s this amazing mix of forward and backwards thinking.

It’s got the designated-old-person narrator pushing the anti-autonomous-vehicles position when autonomous cars are likely to be an incredible boon for the elderly (stuck as they are in a car-dependent society with diminishing sight, hearing, and reaction time).

It’s got the misleading misquote from a Forbes article:  The ad says “Driverless Cars for All: More Dangerous Than Driving - Forbes”, but the actual Forbes article is titled Driverless Cars for All: An Idea More Dangerous Than Driving (emphasis mine), which is not about driverless cars being physically dangerous but the opposite, the “danger” is that manually-piloted cars will be forced off the road in the name of safety.

It quotes the headline of an opinion piece titled Will driverless cars really slow for pedestrians?, but that piece doesn’t imply that driverless cars won’t slow for pedestrians, just that there are complicated tradeoffs involved, and that driverless cars don’t solve that issue by their mere existence.  (Personally, I think autonomous cars will be great for pedestrians, but it’s unreasonable to expect that you can make everywhere safe to cross just by adding more computation and reducing reaction time, all while maintaining fast roads.)

It gets even weirder when you look into who’s funding the ad.  Just who is this Committee to Protect Florida?  Well, a PAC of some kind, they’ve got a hilariously generic description of their purpose.  But they disclose their expenses and contributions.  (Note that the “ecoreport” part of the URL probably has nothing to do with “ECOlogy”, but rather stands for “Electioneering COmmunications”.)

Expenses seem unsurprising, lots of postal spam and media advertising.

Politifact has a page on them (they have not gotten to this ad yet, though):

The Committee to Protect Florida is headed by Rockie Pennington, a political consultant for Richard Corcoran, a Republican candidate for State House District 45.

Corcoran, eh?  What’s he got to do with Brandes?

“I am honored to receive the endorsement of Richard Corcoran,” Jeff Brandes stated. “We worked hard during the 2010-2012 session to address the public’s desire to eliminate wasteful government spending and burdensome regulation. I will continue championing reforms in the State Senate that will boost small business and get Floridians working again.”

A major contributor to the Committee to Protect Florida is the Florida Leadership Fund, which has a very similar website and an even vaguer mission statement.  That gave to Brandes’s State House campaign in 2010, but now seems to be supporting his opponent, James Frishe, in the State Senate race.

Another contribution is Americana Media.  Which contributed web-design services, maybe?  They seem to specialize in blue websites for Florida politicians.

Committee to protect Florida is also supported by MARK PAC, which is where things get a bit weird:

Back in 2007, the Florida Elections Commission fined Democratic operatives Jeffery Ryan and Sara Henning a whopping $209,000 for  illegal financial dealings over several years through a political committee called Florida House Victory that had been set up to support Democratic candidates for the House.

This was all reported at the time. What got lost later was that Democratic Party lawyer Mark Herron—instead of Ryan or Henning—paid off the fine in two installments in Dec. 2007 and June 2008 through another political committee called MARK PAC, which drew its cash during the same periods from two Florida pari-mutuels, the Florida Police Benevolent Association, and health care giant Hospital Corporation of America (HCA). Democrats say there was nothing wrong with the arrangement, and insist the state party had nothing to do with House Victory or paying off the fines.

Anyways, there’s a lot going on here.  It’s amazing just how complicated political campaign funding has become in the US even at the state level.  A good thing to keep in mind as the 2012 presidential race accellerates to full velocity, with no one quite sure who’s behind the wheel.

Full Disclosure: I don’t work on autonomous vehicle technology, but some people at my company do.

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