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►  U.S. median income hit $59,039 in 2016, the highest ever reported by Census Bureau

Middle-class household income set an all-time record last year, besting the previous high set in 1999, the U.S. Census Bureau reported Tuesday.

Median income is a key measure of the economic health of the U.S. middle class, which struggled during the slow economic growth of the early 2000s and was devastated by the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession.

The nation’s poverty rate fell to 12.7 percent in 2016, with 40.6 million people living in poverty, 2.5 million fewer than in 2015, the agency reported. The poverty rate hit its post-recession peak in 2010 at 15.1 percent and is now slightly above where it was in 2007.

Health insurance coverage rates hit 92.1 percent, with slightly more people covered than in 2015.

While the median income reported in 2016 is the highest the Census Bureau has ever published, the agency changed its methodology in 2014. As a result, the agency says prior years’ figures may not be directly comparable.


►  Apple unveils $999 iPhone X, loses ‘home’ button

Apple has broken the $1,000 barrier with its latest, and most expensive, phone, the iPhone X.

With a price starting at $999 and a host of new features, the phone will be a big test for both Apple and consumers. Will people be willing to shell out really big bucks for a relatively fragile device that’s become an essential part of daily life?

On Tuesday, CEO Tim Cook called the iPhone X “the biggest leap forward” since the first iPhone. (“X” is pronounced like the number 10, not the letter X.) It loses the home button, which revolutionized smartphones when it launched; offers an edge-to-edge screen; and will use facial recognition to unlock the phone.

Apple also unveiled a new iPhone 8 and a larger 8 Plus with upgrades to cameras, displays and speakers.

Those phones, Apple said, will shoot pictures with better colors and less distortion, particularly in low-light settings. The display will adapt to ambient lighting, similar to a feature in some iPad Pro models. Speakers will be louder and offer deeper bass.

Both iPhone 8 versions will allow wireless charging, a feature already offered in many Android phones, including Samsung models. Some Android phones have also previously eliminated the home button and added edge-to-edge screens.

Apple shares were mostly flat after the announcement, down 64 cents to $160.86.

STEVE JOBS HOMAGE

This was the first product event for Apple at its new spaceship-like headquarters in Cupertino, California. Before getting to the new iPhone, the company unveiled a new Apple Watch model with cellular service and an updated version of its Apple TV streaming device.

The event opened in a darkened auditorium, with only the audience’s phones gleaming like stars, along with a message that said “Welcome to Steve Jobs Theater.” A voiceover from Jobs, Apple’s co-founder who died in 2011, opened the event before CEO Tim Cook took stage.

“Not a day that goes by that we don’t think about him,” Cook said. “Memories especially come rushing back as we prepared for today and this event. It’s taken some time but we can now reflect on him with joy instead of sadness.”

The iPhone X costs twice what the original iPhone did. It sets a new price threshold for any smartphone intended to appeal to a mass market.

NEW WATCH

Apple’s latest Watch has built-in cellular service. The number on your phone will be the same as your iPhone. The Series 3 model will also have Apple Music available through cellular service. It won’t need a new plan, but will require a data add-on to your existing plan.

“Now, you can go for a run with just your watch,” said Jeff Williams, Apple’s chief operating officer and in charge of Watch development.

Apple is also adding more fitness features to the Watch, and says it is now the most used heartrate monitor in the world. Now, Apple Watch will notify users when it detects an elevated heart rate when they don’t appear to be active. It’ll also detect abnormal heart rhythms.

The Series 3 will start at $399. One without cellular goes for $329, down from $369 for the comparable model now. The original Series 1, without GPS, sells for $249, down from $269. The new watch comes out September 22.

APPLE TV GETS UPGRADE

A new version of the Apple TV streaming device will be able to show video at “4K” resolution — a step up from high definition — and a color-improvement technology called high-dynamic range, or HDR.

Many rival devices already offer these features. But there isn’t a lot of video in 4K and HDR yet, nor are there many TVs that can display it. Apple TV doesn’t have its own display and needs to be connected to a TV.

Apple said it’s been working with movie studios to bring titles with 4K and HDR to its iTunes store. They will be sold at the same prices as high-definition video, which tends to be a few dollars more than standard-definition versions. Apple said it’s working with Netflix and Amazon Prime to bring their 4K originals to Apple TV, too.

The new Apple TV device will cost $179 and ships on September 22. A version without 4K will cost less.


►  U.S. updates self-driving car guidelines

The Trump administration is updating safety guidelines for self-driving cars in an attempt to clear barriers for automakers and tech companies who want to get test vehicles on the road.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced the new voluntary guidelines Tuesday during a visit to an autonomous vehicle testing facility at the University of Michigan.

The new guidelines update policies issued last fall by the Obama administration, which were also largely voluntary. Under Obama, automakers were asked to follow a 15-point safety assessment before putting test vehicles on the road. The new guidelines reduce that to a 12-point voluntary assessment, and no longer require automakers to consider ethical or privacy issues.

The guidelines also make clear that the federal government — not states — determine whether autonomous vehicles are safe. That is the same guidance the Obama administration gave.

Chao emphasized that the guidelines aren’t meant to force automakers to use certain technology or meet stringent requirements; instead, they’re designed to clarify what autonomous vehicle developers should be considering before they put test cars on the road.

“This is a guidance document,” Chao said. “We want to make sure those who are involved understand how important safety is. We also want to ensure that the innovation and the creativity of our country remain.”

But critics say the voluntary nature of the guidelines gives the government no authority to prevent dangerous experimental vehicles.

“This isn’t a vision for safety,” said John M. Simpson, head of privacy for a nonprofit progressive group called Consumer Watchdog. “It’s a roadmap that allows manufacturers to do whatever they want, wherever and whenever they want, turning our roads into private laboratories for robot cars with no regard for our safety.”

Regulators and lawmakers have been struggling to keep up with the pace of self-driving technology. They are wary of burdening automakers and tech companies with regulations that would slow innovation, but they need to ensure that the vehicles are safely deployed. There are no fully self-driving vehicles for sale, but autonomous cars with backup drivers are being tested in numerous states, including California, Nevada and Pennsylvania.

Autonomous vehicle developers, including automakers and tech companies like Google and Uber, say autonomous vehicles could dramatically reduce crashes but complain that the patchwork of state laws passed in recent years could hamper their deployment. Early estimates indicate there were more than 40,000 traffic fatalities in the U.S. last year; government says 94 percent of crashes involve human error.

But safety advocates say that experimental cars could get on public roads too soon, and accidents could undermine public acceptance of the technology.

The new guidelines encourage companies to have processes in place for broad safety goals, such as making sure drivers are paying attention while using advanced assist systems. The systems are expected to detect and respond to people and objects both in and out of its travel path “including pedestrians, bicyclists, animals, and objects that could affect safe operation of the vehicle,” the guidelines say.

Chao said the guidelines will be updated again next year.

“The technology in this field is accelerating at a much faster pace than I think many people expected,” she said. “We want to make sure stakeholders who are developing this have the best information.”

Chao’s appearance came at a time of increased government focus on highly automated cars.

Earlier Tuesday, the National Transportation Safety Board was debating whether Tesla Inc.’s partially self-driving Autopilot system shared the blame for the 2016 death of a driver in Florida. The board ultimately said the driver’s inattention and a truck driver who made a left-hand turn in front of the Tesla were at fault for the crash, but it said automakers should incorporate safeguards that limit the use of automated vehicle control systems so drivers don’t rely on them too much.

Last week, the U.S. House voted to give the federal government the authority to exempt automakers from safety standards that don’t apply to the technology. If a company can prove it can make a safe vehicle with no steering wheel, for example, the federal government could approve that. The bill permits the deployment of up to 25,000 vehicles in its first year and 100,000 annually after that.

The Senate is now considering a similar bill.

--> Wednesday, September 13, 2017
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