Florida is already out on the safety ledge with respect to self-driving car laws, and a new bill being advanced by General Motors will push us even further over the brink.
Last year, Florida became the first state in the nation to make it legal for a self-driving car to operate without a human being physically present in the vehicle. Critically, however, current Florida law does require that self-driving cars have a human “operator,” who in turn must have a valid driver’s license. Significantly, the licensed “operator” required under current law may be held legally accountable for a crash.
This year GM is pushing a bill, SB 1066 sponsored by Senator Jeff Brandes, that would eliminate the licensed human operator requirement, and would instead deem the “autonomous technology” to be the operator. In other words, if GM’s Bill is passed, a first grader could get into a self-driving car, engage the vehicle’s “autonomous mode”—a term that is not defined in the Bill or elsewhere in Florida law—and then legally cruise down Florida’s roadways.
This Bill is fundamentally flawed and, if enacted, would be horrible for Floridians and the millions of tourists and other motorists who use our state’s roadways. First and foremost, the technology is simply not ready for open testing on public roads. Even companies like Tesla, which has been at the forefront of implementing autonomous features in consumer cars, instruct owners that their vehicles must be constantly monitored while operating with autopilot or similar autonomous features engaged. In fact, the latest model Tesla P100D, which is currently the only production vehicle with full autonomous hardware, requires the driver to hold the steering wheel during operation. If the driver takes his or her hands off the wheel, the vehicle will chime and require that the driver grab the wheel again.
Additionally, GM’s proposed legislation may leave many of those injured by robot cars without any recourse at all. As presently drafted, the effect of the GM Bill will be to shift legal fault away from human drivers and onto the vehicle manufacturer. This approach is inherently flawed because it overlooks the reality that foreign companies from nations like China, which generally does not recognize the jurisdiction of U.S. courts and has consistently refused to enforce U.S. judgments, will be heavily involved in the self-driving car marketplace.
Indeed, one of the major players in this arena is Faraday Future, which is owned by LeEco, a Chinese technology company. In addition to the jurisdictional concerns that exist for all foreign corporations, recent reports suggest that the company may be having money issues, creating yet another potential barrier to recovery for injured consumers. Under GM’s Bill, Chinese companies like Faraday Future will be able to beta test their self-driving cars on Florida roads with no licensed driver to monitor or be accountable for the vehicles’ operation. If one of those vehicles were to crash into a Floridian and cause him or her to suffer severe injuries, that individual and his or her family may very well be left without any avenue for recourse.
Even GM’s home state of Michigan has more stringent requirements that serve to protect the interests of that state’s motorists. Unlike GM’s Florida Bill, current Michigan law requires an automaker to post a $10 Million bond, or provide proof of equivalent insurance coverage, before the company’s robot cars can be operated on Michigan roadways. Floridians deserve the same level of protection as that in place for the citizens of GM’s home state.
So why is this radical robot car Bill flying through the legislature? Why has the Bill already passed through one House committee without any amendments? The obvious answer can be found here, on the Florida House of Representative’s website that shows how many lobbyists have registered for a particular bill. At last count, at least 10 lobbyists have filed appearances on this legislation.
This Bill is not about good public policy. It’s unquestionably bad policy, and will make Florida laws for robot cars an even further outlier from all other 49 states. Hopefully before this Bill moves further it can be amended to provide some basic protections for all the innocent drivers who are at risk from robot cars that are still in beta testing by not only American companies like GM, but also by foreign companies such as the Chinese-owned Faraday Future.
Meanwhile, check out this YouTube video which shows a Tesla driver asleep at the wheel while “driving” down the highway with the vehicle’s autopilot feature engaged.