TIME

The Most Important Consumer Victory You Know Nothing About

Would you knowingly forfeit your right to sue?

A week ago, the FTC issued a ruling that was hailed by consumer advocates as a victory for car buyers and owners everywhere — but this is a bullet most consumers probably don’t even know they dodged.

If you have no idea what this is about, that’s not surprising. The agency’s action followed a review of the “Interpretations of Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act,” which, admittedly, sounds like a snoozer. This ruling covers a few different elements of car warranties. In brief, they need to be easily understandable and accessible to customers, and they have to let owners use parts and mechanics of their choice (rather than stipulating only “authorized” parts or technicians).

But the part that has groups like the National Consumer Law Center and the National Association of Consumer Advocates so excited pertains to binding arbitration, which is one of those phrases that tends to make people’s eyes glaze over. Technically, the rules “set standards for any informal dispute settlement provisions in a warranty.” In plain English, this means the FTC has reaffirmed — over the auto industry’s objections — that it put the kibosh on sticking fine print in warranty contracts that require an owner to sign away their right to sue if things go awry.

Binding arbitration has become an increasingly used tactic in all kinds of contracts, from telecommunications to financial services. Businesses say it saves everybody the time, expense and hassle of a lawsuit, but consumer advocates contend that the little guy tends to get the short end of the stick, since arbitrators are paid by the companies and have a strong financial incentive not to bite the hand that’s feeding them. Consumers lose arbitration proceedings a whopping 95% of the time, one study from 2007 found.

“Secret, unreviewable arbitration proceedings before arbitrators paid by industry could keep unsafe cars on the road,” National Consumer Law Center attorney David Seligman said in a statement about the rulings.

The FTC came to its conclusion by looking at previous legal language that addressed the use of arbitration. Basically, they decided the option for suing has to be preserved because the verbiage used refers to arbitration as being the first step available to a wronged consumer, not the only one. “Arbitration should precede but not preclude a subsequent court action,” the agency says.

Encouraged by this victory, these consumer groups — as well as some lawmakers — say regulators like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau should implement a similar rule striking down the use of forced arbitration in financial services products. Nearly three dozen members of Congress also recently got involved, sending a letter to CFPB director Richard Cordray urging him to ban the practice in financial services contracts, saying, “These clauses …are designed to stack the deck against consumers.”

In a report the agency released in March, the CFPB found that the prevalence of arbitration clauses is especially high in prepaid cards and payday loans, financial products that typically target lower-income and financially unsophisticated people. Likewise, the vast majority of private student loan and prepaid cell phone contracts also demand that consumers waive their right to sue.

“Forced arbitration is simply unfair and everywhere in consumer financial services,” Christine Hines, consumer and civil justice counsel with advocacy group Public Citizen, said in a statement about the findings urging lawmakers to ban the practice.

TIME Careers

These Jobs Are Most Likely To Be Taken by a Computer

SPAIN-TECHNOLOGY-ROBOT
Gerard Julien—AFP/Getty Images A man moves his finger toward SVH (Servo Electric 5 Finger Gripping Hand) automated hand made by Schunk during the 2014 IEEE-RAS International Conference on Humanoid Robots in Madrid on November 19, 2014.

Great news, dentists!

Telemarketers’ jobs have the highest chance of being automated, according to recent report. Other positions with huge potential for being overtaken by robots? Cashiers, tellers and drivers, among others, according to this new NPR interactive.

While telemarketers have a 99% chance of one day being totally replaced by technology (it’s already happening), cashiers, tellers and drivers all have over a 97% chance at being automated. Many positions within the “production” category put together by NPR, including packaging and assembly jobs, tend to rank highly as well.

The job with the lowest shot at being overtaken by technology in the future? Mental health and substance abuse social workers. They have a 0.3% chance, according to the data. Occupational therapists also rank at 0.3%, while dentists, surgeons and nutritionists appear pretty safe at just 0.4%.

Per NPR:

The researchers admit that these estimates are rough and likely to be wrong. But consider this a snapshot of what some smart people think the future might look like. If it says your job will likely be replaced by a machine, you’ve been warned.

To play around with the complete data, check here. But beware, it’s pretty addicting.

TIME Uber

Here’s Uber’s Plan for a New Sci-fi Headquarters

Photo courtesy of Uber

Fast-growing company will be moving into fancy new offices

Ride sharing service Uber is planning a fancy new headquarters to go with its recent stratospheric $50 billion valuation.

Futuristic buildings will be connected by glass walkways, according to designs recently released by the company.

The new headquarters, located in San Francisco’s Mission Bay, is expected to open by late 2017 or early 2018, according to Quartz. It will be comprised of a six-story building at 1515 Third St. as well as an 11-story building at 1455 Third St.

The buildings were designed by Shop Architects PC, a New York City firm. The structures measure approximately 423,000 square feet, which the San Francisco Chronicle reported last year will triple Uber’s footprint in the city.

Business software giant Salesforce previously occupied the space.

It will be the eighth move for Uber, according to the Chronicle.

Here are a couple more images of the designs:

Uber headquarters
Photo courtesy of Uber
Uber headquarters 3
Photo courtesy of Uber

 

TIME Autos

Watch BMW Test Driverless Cars and Virtual Reality

With tech companies on its heel, the top premium car maker taps the Internet to try and win the next race

Automakers have never had so much in common with Silicon Valley. Car makers are increasingly relying on technology to develop, market and sell cars to consumers. In fact, most of the world’s major auto companies established research and development labs of one sort or another in the Bay Area. BMW and Volkswagen set up shop there in 1998, General Motors in 2006, Toyota and Ford in 2012, Renault-Nissan in 2013. The automotive industry spends some $100 billion globally on R&D annually, about 16% of the world’s total for all industries.

Likewise, Bay Area firms are also increasingly interested in autos. Ever since the dawn of the personal computer, Silicon Valley has been inventing or reinventing new gadgets: the music player, the phone, the computer first as a phone and, later, as a tablet. Amazon remade the mall. Netflix and YouTube remade TV. Elon Musk’s Tesla notwithstanding, the last great remaining American preoccupation that tech hasn’t widely tackled is the automobile.

MORE: See Inside BMW’s Secret Design Lab

But automakers have a significantly more difficult task integrating technology into their vehicles. Where a new version of an Android phone, for example, might be reasonably expected to last its owner two or three years, most cars are on the roads for decades. That means built-in technology has to last over a much longer time fame. Legislation, as the fights over Tesla’s dealership model and Google’s self-driving cars have shown, can be limiting. And some high-tech bells and whistles simply never take. For every innovation like GPS navigation, there’s a numeric key pad.

In this video, TIME looks at how the top-selling premium manufacturer BMW is exploring new technology ranging from self-driving vehicles to virtual reality in an effort to keep pace with the competition.

TIME Apple

Apple Exec: The Car Is the ‘Ultimate Mobile Device’

Amid rumors of an Apple Car

Apple Senior Vice President of Operations Jeff Williams hinted on Wednesday the company is interested in doing more with cars.

At the Code Conference in California, an Apple shareholder asked Williams if Apple has its sights set on the auto industry. “The car is the ultimate mobile device, isn’t it?” said Williams, according to Business Insider. “We explore all kinds of categories. We’ll certainly continue to look at those, and evaluate where we can make a huge difference.”

Williams’ response comes amid rumors that Apple may want to take on Tesla with an electric car of its own. The efforts are supposedly nicknamed Project Titan.

Still, Apple has other car plans in the works, too: Its new CarPlay software replaces vehicles’ infotainment systems with an iPhone-style interface.

Williams also spoke on Wednesday about third-party apps coming to the Apple Watch this fall.

TIME Auto

Why Tesla Is Cutting Jobs in the World’s Biggest Auto Market

Tesla Earns $46 Million In Q4 As Stock Soars Amid Apple Rumors
Joe Raedle—Getty Images People look at a Tesla Motors vehicle on the showroom floor at the Dadeland Mall on February 19, 2014 in Miami, Florida.

The electric car company has been struggling in China

Tesla may be running out of gas in the world’s largest auto market.

The electric car maker confirmed to the Wall Street Journal that it’s cutting jobs in China amid slow sales and sluggish rollouts of electric vehicle infrastructure.

According to research firm JL Warren Capital, less than 2,500 Teslas were registered in China in the last nine months of 2014. 469 of the company’s vehicles were registered in January. Tesla CEO Elon Musk had previously said that selling 5,000 vehicles in China in 2014 would be deemed a success. Tesla declined to comment to the Journal on its sales figures.

One challenge for Tesla in China is the reliance of its electric vehicles on chargers. Because many city residents in China live in apartments, it’s harder for them to keep chargers at home.

Like all automakers, Tesla is eager to establish a strong foothold in China, which became the largest auto market in the world in 2009. More than 21 million cars are expected to be sold in the country this year, an 8% increase from 2014. However, only a tiny fraction of these vehicles use alternative energy sources–in 2014, only 50,000 such cars were sold.

China wants to have 5 million electric cars on the roads by 2020 as a means of reducing rampant pollution problems in the country.

The news of Tesla’s job cuts in China comes after the company actually added more than 4,000 global positions last year.

TIME Innovation

Here’s the First Prototype of Google’s Self-Driving Car

Google built the prototype from scratch, layering self-driving technology onto a patchwork of auto parts

Google unveiled its first prototype of a fully-functional, self-driving car on Monday, promising to send it for a whirl on its test track over the holidays.

“Today we’re unwrapping the best holiday gift we could’ve imagined,” Google wrote in a post on the project’s official blog page, “the first real build of our self-driving vehicle prototype. ”

Google’s engineers built a variety of prototypes from the ground up. Each model combined self-driving technology, such as laser guided steering, with car parts from conventional suppliers. “We’ve now put all those systems together in this fully functional vehicle—our first complete prototype for fully autonomous driving.”

Project director Chris Urmson has previously told the Wall Street Journal that Google is not interested in manufacturing the cars themselves, but was looking to partner with existing auto makers in a bid to commercialize the technology in five years.

 

TIME Business

GE Makes a Big Bet on Manufacturing

Rana Foroohar is TIME's assistant managing editor in charge of economics and business.

The company’s plan to make things again is a test for the entire American economy

If one company mirrors the travails of American business over the past decade, it’s General Electric. The manufacturing giant founded by Thomas Edison in 1892–and the last of the original firms in the Dow Jones industrial average still listed on that index–grew into a multinational powerhouse that made everything from lightbulbs to locomotives as the U.S. became the world’s lone superpower. Its nickname said everything: Generous Electric. But by the time the 2008 economic crisis hit, GE had gone from being an industrial innovator to being the country’s sixth largest bank, relying on financial wizardry rather than engineering to satisfy investors.

Perhaps the most enduring quality of the broader economic recovery since then has been the gap between reality and perception. While growth and jobs are up, only about 1 in 4 Americans believes the economy is getting stronger, according to a recent survey by the investment firm BlackRock. The reason is clear: personal incomes aren’t rising, except at the very top. Historically, the key to achieving broad income growth has been creating more middle-income jobs. And those have traditionally come from the manufacturing sector.

Which is partly why, in order to save his company, CEO Jeffrey Immelt borrowed $3 billion from Warren Buffett and vowed to retool GE–away from complex financial schemes and back toward making things. GE, in other words, is trying to do what the U.S. as a whole needed to do: rebalance its economy and get back to basics.

So, six years on from disaster, how is it going?

Immelt has made progress. With the recent spin-off of GE’s consumer-finance division, which peddles financial products ranging from private-label credit cards to auto loans, the share of profits that comes from finance has gone from more than half to about 40%. The target is to get it back down to around 25%. As CFO Jeff Bornstein recently put it to me, “We had to decide whether we wanted to be a tech company that solves the world’s big problems or a finance company that makes a few things.”

GE’s executives are betting on a few megatrends, including the belief that emerging-market economies are entering a period very much like the post–World War II period in the U.S. Those countries will need new houses, bridges, roads, airports and all types of consumer goods in unprecedented quantities. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that by 2025, emerging-economy nations will spend more than $20 trillion a year in this way. That means that future economic growth may well be centered on making things, rather than trading on their value.

To help capture its share of that action, GE is trying to copy some of Silicon Valley’s methods. The company has set up a “growth board” that operates like an internal venture-capital firm, vetting new ideas presented by employees and then dishing out a bit of time and capital to explore them. The result is that production cycles for projects like new oil-drilling equipment or LED lighting systems are shortening dramatically. An idea that once took two years to test might go from paper to production in 45 days.

The firm is also sourcing new ideas from the crowd. One recent design for a bracket on a jet engine came from a 22-year-old in Indonesia who had tapped into a website where the company posts problems and offers payouts to whoever can solve them.

Still, the big question is just how many good new jobs America’s industrial firms, small and large, will actually create in the coming years. So far, the trends are positive. In October, the Boston Consulting Group’s annual survey of senior manufacturing executives found that the number of respondents bringing production back from China to the U.S. had risen 20% in the past year. GE’s new hub in San Ramon, Calif., which was launched more than two years ago to explore the burgeoning “Internet of things” (i.e., machine-to-machine communication via the Internet), has gone from zero employees to more than 1,000. The company is also using more local small and midsize suppliers, thanks to new technologies like 3-D printing that let startups achieve more speed and scale.

Such trends at GE and elsewhere have yet to replace the 1.6 million manufacturing jobs lost in the recession. The good news about our postcrisis economy is that it is smarter and nimbler and growing in the right sectors. The bad news is that it still doesn’t have enough good jobs for those who need them. The way forward may be clear, but getting there is another story.

TO READ JOE’S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/swampland


This appears in the December 01, 2014 issue of TIME.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Parenting

If Cars Can Monitor Left-On Headlights and Rear Obstructions, They Should Be Able To Save Trapped Kids’ Lives

Today, technology saves your car battery—tomorrow, it could save your child

Thursday is National Heatstroke Prevention Day, so here is a little fact for your awareness: In the past 20 years more than 670 U.S. children have died of heatstroke in hot cars. To date this year KidsAndCars.org has recorded 18 such fatalities, including the death last week of a 10-month-old girl in Wichita, Kansas, who was unknowingly left in a vehicle on a 90-degree day.

Our national advocacy nonprofit works year-round to educate parents and caregivers about these dangers, including a nationwide “Look before you lock” program. But education is not enough when all it takes is a simple change in a daily routine to cause a parent to drive past their childcare center and forget their child in the back seat. Current state laws require putting your baby in a rear-facing child safety seat, which has saved the lives of thousands of children in car crashes. An unintended consequence of this shift is that when out of sight, quiet little unobtrusive passengers can slip out of mind.

How can we prevent this failure of memory? The auto industry obviously recognizes that we’re human and our memories often fail us: our cars are able to warn us if we leave our headlights on, our keys are in the ignition, a door is open, we’re low on fuel, if our seatbelt isn’t buckled… If we can monitor our headlights or gas levels, we should be able to get a signal that a child has been forgotten.

Some of the technology options currently on the market include car seat monitors and alert systems, key fobs connected to car seats that sound a reminder and weight-sensitive mats. One system activates when the driver has opened the back door to strap in the car seat, and then sounds a reminder chime when the driver leaves the vehicle. Mobile apps have hit the market, such as Cars-n-Kids Carseat Monitor, which connects with the carseat via a sensor, or the Amber Alert GPS, which tracks your child in or out of the car.

These after-market systems may be useful reminders to some people, but they have not all been tested, and they are not the failsafe solution we need in every vehicle. Furthermore, a 2012 study on “Evaluation of Reminder Technology” sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and conducted by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia found that a few of these systems were not always reliable.

Safety is something every family deserves. It shouldn’t be optional, like 4WD or leather seats. And it shouldn’t be political. The federal government and automakers along with safety advocates have the ability to solve this problem.

KidsAndCars.org recently launched a petition to push the Obama Administration to authorize the U.S. Department of Transportation to provide funding for research and development of innovative technologies to detect a child left alone in the rear seat of a vehicle, such as infrared breathing sensors (a technology that already exists in certain baby monitors for the home). We also spearheaded an initiative to adopt federal safety standards that require all vehicles to be equipped with trunk release latches to prevent trunk entrapment, safer power window switches to prevent strangulation, and brake transmission shift interlock systems so children cannot inadvertently knock a vehicle into gear. In March, the DOT issued a rule requiring rear visibility systems, such as cameras, as standard equipment on all new passenger vehicles by May 2018.

Today, technology saves your car battery. Tomorrow, it could save your child.

Susan Pepperdine is the public relations director of KidsAndCars.org, a national nonprofit group dedicated to preventing injuries and deaths of children in and around motor vehicles.

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