Florida Bill Considers Ditching the Backup Driver in AVs

A proposal by Rep. Jason Fischer would allow companies testing autonomous technology to lose the human safety net, potentially positioning the state as a front-runner in the testing space.

by Ron Hurtibise, Sun Sentinel / January 28, 2019
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(TNS) — Is it time to revise Florida’s motor vehicle laws to prepare for a future dominated by driverless vehicles? At least two lawmakers think so.

A new legislative bill aimed at preserving Florida’s status as a pioneering state for autonomous vehicle development would eliminate requirements that human operators always be on hand to take control of fully autonomous cars while in turn legalizing driverless vehicles fully run by software systems.

The proposed law by Duval County state Rep. Jason Fischer would establish that “a licensed human operator is not required to operate a fully autonomous vehicle.”

Eliminating the human safety net would be a significant show of confidence for a technology that some experts caution still isn’t ready for everyday use.

But Fischer says he’s confident the technology is close to being ready for widespread deployment. Driverless vehicles will make roads safer, he said, citing a 2017 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that concluded human choices are linked to 94 percent of serious crashes.

In addition, Fischer said companies that want to conduct business in Florida cannot because current law prohibits driverless vehicles on public property other than for testing.

“I see all kinds of economic opportunity, but I also see opportunity for freedom,” he said. “It increases mobility for our society in a way that’s hard to quantify — for people with disabilities, people who are vision-impaired or cannot drive at night.”

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, is expected to file a Senate version of Fischer’s bill. The proposals are subject to debate and revision through the spring session, which begins March 5.

Autonomous vehicles will have to comply with federal safety standards and Florida’s traffic and motor vehicle laws. But they would be exempted from requirements and restrictions currently imposed upon human drivers. For example, with the automated driving system engaged, anyone in the driver’s seat could watch movies or TV from a dashboard-mounted video screen.

And as long as the car or driving system is capable of summoning authorities after a crash, there’s no need to require a human to stand at the crash site, said Christopher Emmanuel, director of infrastructure and governance policy for Autonomous Florida, an advocacy program created in 2018 by the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

“The old law required a person there to be the ‘operator’ with a driver’s license to show, ‘I’m the person to talk to about that shuttle over there,’ ” he said. “It’s probably not fair anymore to require a human to speak for an algorithm.”

Lawmakers enacted the state’s current law in 2012 to encourage testing and pilot programs in the state. Considered groundbreaking at the time, the law requires a human operator to be inside or outside driverless vehicles on public roads, ready to assume manual control in case of a technical failure.

In 2012, lawmakers envisioned that most autonomous vehicles would be owned by individuals, much as we own and keep our cars today, Emmanuel said.

Then came plans by ride-sharing service Uber to deploy driverless technology, as well as a decline in automobile ownership among members of the millennial generation.

Suddenly, Uber, Google and the world’s biggest automakers announced plans to create fleets of automated cars. Many of the plans call for consumers not to own but to subscribe to car services that will be summoned on demand, much like movies on Netflix and products ordered through Amazon Prime.

“Now we’re moving toward mobility as a service model,” Emmanuel said. “This might be more of a public good, with multiple people using the same vehicle at multiple times a day.”

©2019 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.