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  1. Transportation

Florida law allows driverless vehicles. Does the law go too far?

Elected officials and community leaders go for a demonstration ride using autonomous vehicle technology in downtown Tampa. [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times]
Elected officials and community leaders go for a demonstration ride using autonomous vehicle technology in downtown Tampa. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Apr. 1, 2018

To many, driverless cars still seem a far-off concept, one their grandkids might experience. But state Sen. Jeff Brandes has spent the better half of the past decade making them a reality in Florida.

The St. Petersburg Republican pushed to make the state a leader in autonomous vehicles, starting with legislation in 2012 that made it legal for self-driving cars to operate on Florida's roads. Bills that followed removed the need for a human to be in the car at all.

That's right: a driverless car could pull up beside you without anyone in it.

"We're one of the most forward-thinking states in the country as it relates to the future of mobility and transportation," Brandes said.

But opponents say the rush to lure companies and developers could come at a high risk.

A fatal crash in Arizona last month has exposed the limitations of this technology. Uber halted autonomous vehicle testing when one of its vehicles struck and killed a pedestrian March 16 in Tempe.

Critics wonder if Florida has gone too far, too fast in allowing driverless technology.

"You have this technology that is being unleashed on the world prior to it really being ready," Clearwater lawyer Joshua Chilson said. "It's obviously not advanced to the point where it's capable of responding to real-life scenarios, like the one that happened in Tempe."

• • •

Thanks to Brandes and other lawmakers, the state has laid an aggressive groundwork to make Florida attractive to the companies building and testing autonomous vehicle technology.

And 2018 is already shaping up to be a big year for autonomous vehicles in Florida.

In February, a Starsky Robotics truck completed a 7-mile drive on a closed portion of Route 833 in Hendry County without a human in the vehicle. Later that month, Ford started testing self-driving cars in Miami-Dade County. Some are even delivering pizza.

And later this year, self-driving taxis will come to the Villages, Florida's largest retirement community.

"The technology is here and we're seeing it play out in real time," Brandes said. "The business community, transit planners, real estate developers, they're all changing their thinking because of how forward- thinking Florida's been."

But the Florida Justice Association, a trial lawyer advocacy group, and others oppose allowing driverless vehicles to operate on public roads before the technology is perfected.

"Our school zones should not be their beta test laboratory," said association president Dale Swope. "That's what test facilities are for."

The association has also lobbied for the state to include strong accountability language in future legislation, making it clear who is responsible when a driverless car is in a crash. Swope also proposed that owners of the vehicles should be held liable.

"When an autonomous vehicle kills someone, like it recently did in Arizona, trying to determine who was at fault is going to be very expensive and very difficult," Swope said. "It becomes infeasible."

Swope said regulation won't thwart development. Instead, he pointed to the invention of the automobile and the regulations that followed in the early 20th century as an example.

"It didn't kill the development of automobiles to have reasonable regulations of headlights, taillights and other expectations," Swope said.

• • •

Autonomous vehicle leaders like Stefan Seltz-Axmacher, co-founder of Starsky Robotics, said Florida's minimal regulation and openness to real-life testing and operation is exactly what draws companies to the Sunshine State.

The industry was very West Coast-centric, Seltz-Axmacher said, when he started nearly three years ago. Most of the autonomous vehicle teams were in the San Francisco Bay area. Some reached as far east as Arizona or Nevada. But now Seltz-Axmacher sees other states, like Florida, drawing in companies and developers with progressive laws.

"Sen. Brandes put Florida in a leadership position because of the laws he passed fairly early on that are nonobtrusive and easy to work with," Seltz-Axmacher said. "The laws are fairly clear without too many restrictions."

It's different in other states. Nevada required companies to put their vehicles through 15,000 miles of testing before allowing them on its roads. California mandates that companies register with the state and log accident reports with a central agency. Michigan requires automakers to have $10 million of self-insurance.

But Florida's regulatory climate allows companies like Starsky Robotics to test in real-world situations — on real roads — without a state permit.

Florida hasn't been as dramatic with its legislation as other states, said University of South Carolina law professor Bryant Walker Smith, who studies autonomous vehicles. Instead of passing one bill on the subject, Brandes and other lawmakers have taken a more subtle approach, passing key autonomous vehicle provisions as part of an omnibus bill.

"It hasn't been quite as flashy as other states, but it's been a pretty concerted effort to begin addressing this topic," Smith said. "Florida's bills have not been particularly detailed but have been, I think, pretty far-reaching."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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