With this month’s completion of a $42 million, 2.25-mile oval track within a 475-acre SunTrax testing center for autonomous vehicles [AV], Florida is aggressively seeking to draw “smart” technology investment.
Adjacent to Florida Polytechnic University west of Orlando, SunTrax will break ground on a $90 million urban landscape within the oval track and hire a contractor to operate it this summer.
SunTrax is a public-private venture managed by the Central Florida Autonomous Vehicle Partnership, which includes Florida Turnpike Enterprise, Florida Poly, the University of Central Florida, Florida A&M University, NASA and Lynx.
The AV-testing site was created to lure Google, Apple, Ford Motor Co., Lyft, Uber and other AV investors to the Sunshine State to perfect prototypes.
At play is an emerging realm of economic development estimated to be a $100 billion annual industry by 2021 and $7 trillion by 2050.
Companion House-Senate bills that would further clear the regulatory road for AV investment are working their way through the Florida Legislature.
The House State Affairs Committee approved House Bill 311 in a 20-1 vote and the Senate Transportation, Tourism & Economic Development Subcommittee advanced Senate Bill 932 in a 8-0 tally.
HB 311, sponsored by Rep. Jason Fischer, R-Jacksonville, could be adopted by the House next week while SB 932, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, awaits a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing before being presented for a chamber vote.
If adopted, they would permit self-driving vehicles to be operated without a human backup and allow Uber and Lyft, among others, to accelerate plans to deploy fleets of driverless vehicles on state streets.
“Florida is widely recognized as one of the nation’s leaders in self-driving vehicle public policy,” Fischer said. “To maintain this position and encourage companies to test and deploy in our state, we must address our existing laws governing motor vehicle operation that did not contemplate a driverless future when they were written.”
Fischer and Brandes have been on the forefront of developing the state’s AV policy since 2012 when Brandes spearheaded the legislation that created SunTrax.
In 2016, the pair introduced bills that eliminated a requirement that a human operator be present in a vehicle while being tested.
Last year, Fischer and Brandes sponsored bills that loosened liability bond requirements for AV operators, further sweeping back regulatory roadblocks to AV development.
HB 311/SB 932 update the 2016 legislation, replacing “autonomous vehicle” in state statute with “automated driving system,” and defining “On-Demand Autonomous Vehicle Network” as a digital passenger transportation network that links patrons to AVs for-hire.
The bills allow AVs to be operated without a human with a driver license, essentially making the “automated driving system” the “driver,” beyond the testing stage and onto the streets.
The bills also require AV automated driving systems to “be capable of achieving a minimal risk condition if a failure of the system occurs.”
If there is any consternation with the bills, it is safety, particularly after an AV Uber being tested in Arizona last year fatally struck a pedestrian.
But Fischer, an electrical engineer, said AVs are safe and getting safer, noting 94 percent of fatal motor vehicle accidents in 2017 were caused by human error.
“These vehicles are designed to operate much more intelligently and, maybe, even more rationally than a human driver would,” he said, noting language could be further refined to “give people more comfort on the issue.”
Fischer referenced the committee’s agenda, which included a hearing on a proposal outlawing texting while driving, noting anyone “behind the wheel” of an AV could text all they want, even watch television, when the automated driving system is engaged.
“Eventually,” he said, “in a couple of decades, driving a vehicle is going to be like riding horses – fun to do, but you don’t do it to work.”
“We used to have horses and buggies and when you went to tie the horse up to get to market, sometimes the horse would kick you in the head, but we moved through that,” said Rep. Wengay Newton, D-St. Petersburg. “Do we go back to horses and buggies so everybody is safe and get kicked in the head, or do we embrace technology and move forward?”
Fischer said AV technology would “serve all Floridians, providing opportunities for the elderly and special needs communities to have an independent and reliable source of transportation.”
Representatives from the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, Americans for Prosperity, Lyft, Uber, General Motors, the Florida Council of the Blind and AARP attended the hearing in support of HB 311.
The dissenting vote in the 20-1 adoption was cast by Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach. Over the span of five committee stops in both chambers, the bills have accrued a combined 69-1 favorable tally.