Florida law opens door to self-driving cars

New legislation allows autonomous vehicles to be tested in the state, though driverless roll-out remains far off.

    Self-driving cars have been tested in the cities of Phoenix and Las Vegas, places with climates similar to that of Florida [Caitlin O’Hara/Reuters]
    Self-driving cars have been tested in the cities of Phoenix and Las Vegas, places with climates similar to that of Florida [Caitlin O’Hara/Reuters]

    Self-driving vehicles with no human at the wheel will be able to operate in Florida  - once they are finally ready for prime time - under a bill signed on Thursday by Governor Ron DeSantis.

    DeSantis said he hopes to use the law to lure companies to test and build the cars. The measure, which takes effect on July 1, also opens the door for on-demand ride companies such as Lyft and Uber to eventually deploy fleets of the vehicles in Florida, in the southeastern United States.

    That does not mean, however, that such cars will appear on public streets around the state anytime soon. Self-driving vehicles without a human operator are largely still in the testing stage.

    DeSantis and state lawmakers said they want to show that Florida will be ready when the cars are.

    "As soon as companies are ready to roll them out, they'll be able to get onto our roadways," said Florida State Representative Jason Fischer, who sponsored the bill and called it "the best law in the country".

    "This will allow ultimate flexibility for companies," he said.

    'Smarter future'

    As of March, the most recent month for which information is available, 29 states had passed laws related to autonomous vehicles, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. They range from authorising testing to allowing the vehicles to operate without humans.

    The two other states besides Florida that allow people-free vehicles are Michigan and Texas, but it may be quite some time before any state sees its streets populated by cars driven with no human help.

    Waymo, an offshoot of Google, had operated a very limited programme using autonomous vehicles with no drivers in the Phoenix area, but now requires a human behind the wheel to take control of its robotaxis in emergencies.

    Las Vegas and other cities have used autonomous vehicles with human "safety drivers" in case of a vehicle malfunction.

    Florida's new law will allow self-driving cars without humans on all of the state's roads, as long as the vehicles meet insurance and safety requirements outlined in the legislation.

    The law stipulates that owners of autonomous vehicles have a minimum of $1m in insurance coverage, regardless of whether the vehicles are for personal or commercial use.

    The legislation also requires that the owner immediately report crashes to law enforcement, or that the vehicles themselves have a system in place to report them.

    Florida is hoping to siphon high-paying technology jobs away from California, where dozens of companies have already been testing autonomous vehicles with backup drivers on public roads for several years.

    "With this bill, Florida officially has an open-door policy to autonomous vehicle companies and I encourage them to relocate from California to Florida," DeSantis said before signing the legislation at a state-run autonomous vehicle test track in the central Florida city of Auburndale.

    "This helps chart a course to a bolder, brighter and smarter future in transportation and embraces the innovation revolution that will bring high-paying jobs to the state while making our roads safer."

    SOURCE: AP news agency