Self-driving cars, trucks and buses without a human backup can now legally drive on Florida’s streets.
That is, of course, once autonomous vehicles [AVs] are actually built, tested and road-ready.
And that – building and testing them to be road-ready – is the impetus behind a new Florida law that allows AVs to operate on state roads, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Thursday.
“Signing this legislation paves the way for Florida to continue as a national leader in transportation innovation and technological advancement,” he said before signing House Bill 311 into law at the $42 million SunTrax AV testing site next to Florida Polytechnic University west of Orlando.
“With this bill,” DeSantis continued, “Florida officially has an open-door policy to autonomous vehicle companies and I encourage them to relocate from California to Florida.”
SunTrax’s 2.25-mile oval track will be a first-of-its-kind “smart” technology testing center when it is fully operational by 2021and will compete to lure Google, Apple, Ford Motor Co., Lyft and Uber – which plan to purchase 25,000 AVs by 2021 — to test prototypes for what some estimate will be a $100 billion annual industry by 2021 and $7 trillion by 2050.
“This means Florida takes the pole position in the deployment of autonomous vehicles in the country,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who sponsored HB 311’s senate companion. “You’re going to see more and more companies coming here.”
HB 311, sponsored by Rep. Jason Fischer, R-Jacksonville, replaces “autonomous vehicle” in state statute with “automated driving system,” and defines “On-Demand Autonomous Vehicle Network” as a digital passenger transportation network that links patrons to AVs for-hire.
The new law allows AVs to be operated without a human with a driver's license, essentially making the “automated driving system” the “driver,” beyond the testing stage and onto the streets.
The law also requires AV automated driving systems “be capable of achieving a minimal risk condition if a failure of the system occurs.”
The measure, which takes effect July 1, also allows Uber and Lyft, among others, to accelerate plans to deploy fleets of driverless vehicles on state streets.
“As soon as companies are ready to roll them out, they’ll be able to get onto our roadways,” Fischer said. “This will allow ultimate flexibility for companies.”
Brandes and Fischer have been on the forefront of developing the state’s AV policy.
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.
In 2012, Brandes spearheaded the legislation that created SunTrax, a 475-acre testing center for AVs and “smart” technologies managed by the Central Florida Autonomous Vehicle Partnership, a partnership of Florida Turnpike Enterprise, Florida Polytechnic University, NASA, the University of Central Florida, Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University and Lynx.
With the April completion of its oval track, SunTrax has broken ground on a $90 million infield project – which will simulate an 200-acre urban road grid – and will soon hire a contractor to operate it.
By 2021, SunTrax will be available to commercial tenants not only as a testing site for AV technologies, but as a center for researching tolling, intelligent transportation systems and smart-phone-based payments for tollways.
The center, totally financed by turnpike toll revenues, benefits by being part of the Florida Polytechnic University “ecosystem,” which includes its Advanced Mobility Institute and new $23.34 million Applied Research Center, when it opens in 2021.
Founded as the state’s 12th public university in 2012, Florida Polytechnic exclusively offers a science, technology, math and engineering curriculum designed to drive high-tech, high-skill economic development statewide.
SunTrax and Florida Poly are anchors amid a nest of technology start-ups along the I-4 corridor from Orlando to Tampa to the east and the Space Coast on the west.
Brandes said high-tech investors and companies are “all looking for certainty” and “that’s what they really needed to advance” with the state’s commitment to Sun Trax, Florida Poly and bills such as HB 311.
The payoff will; be in higher-paying jobs and safer roads, Brandes said. “It’s right around the corner.”