Hackers Cripple Colonial Pipeline, Covid Vaccine IP in Question and Commercial Robotaxi Operations are Ready to Go

This Week in Engineering explores the latest innovations and tech trends in engineering from academia, government and industry.

Episode Summary:

The mysterious cyber-attack on the Colonial gasoline pipeline this week created something unseen in America since the late 1970s: gas lines at filling stations. Panic buying appears to have made the problem much worse, and critical infrastructure that’s cloud connected is now under the microscope.

With the Biden Administration and other world governments examining the possibility of removing intellectual property protection from Covid vaccine makers, a WTO agreement that has existed for 25 years has been widely ignored. It may offer a way to increased production.

Cruise is now joined Waymo in a formal request from the California Department of Motor Vehicles to operate paid Robotaxi services in the Bay Area. If approved, this could be the beginning of the end for the taxi driver.

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Transcript of this week’s show:

Segment 1: With last week’s cyber-attack on the eastern seaboard Colonial gasoline pipeline, America has seen something not experienced since the 1977 oil crisis: gas lines at filling stations. Shortages had resulted in retail station shutdowns that at their peak affected over half the stations in North Carolina, with lesser impact from Washington DC to the Gulf Coast. Unlike the oil crisis of the 1970s however, this crisis is not supply related. The Colonial pipeline is a distribution system for refined oil products, not crude oil. Neither crude supplies, nor refining capacity was affected, and normal line operations have restarted. The shortages appear to have been caused by panic buying, similar to retail behavior seen during the ramp up of Covid last year. The Colonial pipeline is the biggest line of its type in the US, running 5500 miles between Texas and New York, carrying 3 million barrels of fuel per day. The FBI has identified the cyber attackers as a criminal enterprise called DarkSide, who target private businesses with ransomware. Colonial has reported that no ransom was paid. The move appears to be a departure of usual operations for Darkside, who generally avoid attacks on hospitals, schools and governments, and who may have miscalculated the political impact of an attack on critical US infrastructure. With multiple supply chains disrupted because of Covid, the immediate response to the crisis, mainly by relaxing regulations on the trucking industry, had limited effect, mainly due to the shortage of drivers. Pres. Biden has identified a shortage of cyber security personnel in American industry as factor in US corporate vulnerability to cyberattack. Expect a nationwide review of key infrastructure and an increased focus on cybersecurity in the private sector this summer. 

Segment 2: With vaccination rates in most Western nations now showing signs of real control over Covid 19, the focus on vaccine production and delivery is shifting toward the developing world, particularly India. The Biden Administration and other world governments are now discussing the possibility of waiving intellectual property protections held by current vaccine makers in an effort to ramp up local production as quickly as possible. While the debate rages about what to do about patents covering the vaccines, in fact a regulatory regime already exists, negotiated through the WTO and in effect since January 1995. Called the TRIPS, the Trade -Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights Agreement gives governments the right to produce patented products or processes without the consent of the patent owner, either in government run operations or using private enterprise. The agreement essentially allows individual countries to make generic copies of patented drugs as long as those drugs are for domestic use and not export. The agreement also affirms that the patents are still held by the originating companies who maintain a right to be paid for the use of their IP. While intended to cope with emergencies just like Covid, the lack of local manufacturing facilities capable of producing high tech pharmaceuticals, combined with the legal restriction on export of unlicensed generics between developing nations, has put the spotlight back on the major manufacturers. Many pharmaceutical industry experts argue that a better solution is to allow the originating pharmaceutical companies to expand production organically and use subcontractors, then rapidly ship to global markets. Over a year into the pandemic, Chinese and Western nations have ramped vaccine production to the point where exports in volume are now possible, but the combination of huge population numbers in India and Africa, combined with difficult last mile delivery and distribution problems suggest that a global split between have and have not nations may make many regions no-go zones for travellers for some time. 

Segment 3: General Motors’ autonomous vehicle operation Cruise has now joined Alphabet’s Waymo in an application with the California Department of motor vehicles for permission to charge passengers for rides in their self driving taxis. Waymo’s application cites 83,000 autonomous miles driven in the Bay Area, with locally based Cruise declaring 2 million logged autonomous miles in San Francisco. Both applications contain significant concessions to win state regulatory approval. Services will begin with safety drivers in the car, and Waymo has declared that it may turn off the autonomous mode in difficult driving conditions. Cruise has also declared that it will limit operations to fair weather, operate in limited hours and at speeds at or below 30 mph. Waymo intends to operate up to highway speeds. In tech, the first mover advantage is assumed to lie with the companies with leading-edge products, but these developments address the critical yet unexplored side of self-driving technology: the law. With individual applications, both Waymo and Cruise have set the California DMV precedent for specific regulatory control over individual companies in the self-driving space, rather than blanket permission for taxi companies to deploy self-driving vehicles. This may have the effect of squeezing out private taxi and livery services, and possibly affect bus lines and even local delivery in the future. The other major change that paid service brings is a radically different liability regime. The consideration paid by riders, who are customers rather than voluntary testers, mean that both Waymo and Cruise must operate at a higher legal standard, delivering services at levels of safety equivalent to a human driven cab. What isn’t clear at this time is how the insurance industry will react, and while both companies have deep pockets and can self-insure, the creation of a market for that risk will have major implications for the speed at which self-driving cars are implemented. If insurance risk and as a result, premiums are significantly higher, the cost advantage of replacing the driver is lower, especially with the higher cost of self-driving vehicles. If they prove themselves as safe and capable right out of the box, it may go the other way, with lower rates for robotaxis, increasing the cost advantage over human driven cars, and making the transition rapid.

Written by

James Anderton

Jim Anderton is the Director of Content for ENGINEERING.com. Mr. Anderton was formerly editor of Canadian Metalworking Magazine and has contributed to a wide range of print and on-line publications, including Design Engineering, Canadian Plastics, Service Station and Garage Management, Autovision, and the National Post. He also brings prior industry experience in quality and part design for a Tier One automotive supplier.