On Thursday, Governor Ron DeSantis signed new legislation clearing the way for self-driving vehicles to soon become a part of our daily commute on the roads of Florida. Beginning July 1, 2019, proponents of autonomous vehicles such as car companies and tech wizards will be allowed to experiment with the driverless vehicles within the state. The law does require the automobiles to be in compliance with both safety and insurance regulations found in the bill.

In a situation where there is a human being behind the steering wheel, the vehicle must have a method to alert the driver to take over should there be a problem. This warning method must include both visual and auditory alerts to ensure the driver is made immediately aware of a problem. If the vehicle is out on its own, the law requires it to have the ability to safely activate its hazard lights and slowly bring itself to a stop on the side of the road without endangering or impeding other traffic.

Interestingly from a liability perspective, the passenger in the vehicle is not responsible for any damage or injury caused by the vehicle. Instead, responsibility for accidents falls on the automobile maker should an accident occur. The rationale for such a decision clearly is found in wanting no excuses for accidents to avoid liability should injuries occur similar to fatalities that have occurred in other states.

Bans on distracting behavior such as reading emails or sending text messages specifically do not apply to passengers in the vehicles as well. Activities such as watching television are even permitted when the car is engaged in autonomous mode. This is of course one of the hooks in using autonomous travel as it provides the riders opportunity to work or enjoy their time in the vehicle instead of focusing on driving itself. DeSantis was quoted as saying that the new law hopes to make Florida, “the most autonomous vehicle-friendly state in the country.”

Questions arise as to the wisdom of utilizing the streets and highways of Florida as a new testing ground for the autonomous vehicles. While most would agree that safe, reliable, driverless travel is a hope for many in the community, risking the safety of citizens of the state may not be the best decision. It is clear that the bill attempts to address these concerns with its statutory language. But is a policy focusing more on compensatory liability the way to address these concerns or restrictions on where and when the vehicles can operate a more appropriate approach? Only time will tell if these safety measures are adequate to ensure that motorist lives remain protected.

-By Marc Consalo, Director of the Center for Law and Policy

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