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It’s official: Florida state law no longer mandates that companies testing driverless cars on public roads retain a human safety driver behind the wheel. On Thursday, Florida governor Ron DeSantis signed into law a bill that establishes a legal framework for autonomous cars — one that places the onus on companies to ensure their technology stacks aren’t unduly likely to cause accidents.

Florida is the third state to allow people-free cars, following Michigan and Texas. One startup already testing such vehicles in the state — San Francisco-based Starsky Robotics — expects to deploy a fleet of 25 autonomous trucks by the end of 2020. Starsky completed tests on a closed-off rural road near Lake Okeechobee in February 2018, and it’s currently operating three driverless vehicles on Florida freeways.

“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 self-driving vehicle test track in 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.”

Starting July 1, tech companies and automakers testing cars in Florida must build in visible and audible systems that alert human operators to critical systems failures, and they must devise safeguards for cars operating without a motorist in control that enable the cars to achieve a “minimal risk condition” — i.e., pull over and activate hazard lights. Meanwhile, driverless vehicle owners are required to report crashes to law enforcement immediately or to implement in-vehicle mechanisms that automatically report incidents or allow passengers to report them.

Incidentally, drivers inside autonomous cars are exempt from Florida’s ban on using cellphones and other wireless communication devices behind the wheel. However, they’ll have to meet the minimum insurance policy requirements outlined by the state: $300,000 in combined bodily liability and property damage coverage for trucks with a gross vehicle weight of 44,000 pounds or more (and lesser amounts for lighter vehicles), or at least $1 million for death, bodily injury, and property damage coverage for vehicles used for on-demand taxi networks.

Companies will be allowed to deploy their cars with no state inspection or certification.

To date, 29 states have passed laws pertaining to autonomous vehicles, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, New York, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin, in addition to Washington, D.C.

Last March, President Donald Trump signed into law a $1.3 trillion spending bill that earmarks $100 million for projects that “test the feasibility and safety” of autonomous cars. In October 2018, the Department of Transportation (DOT) — through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — issued the third iteration of its voluntary guidelines on the development and safe deployment of driverless car technology: Automated Vehicles 3.0. Here, regulators posit new safety standards “to accommodate automated vehicle technologies and the possibility of setting exceptions to certain standards … that are relevant only when human drivers are present.”

In a talk at Uber’s Elevate Summit in Washington, D.C., this week, U.S. DOT secretary Elaine Chao revealed that over 80 companies are currently testing more than 1,400 self-driving cars, trucks, and other vehicles across 36 U.S. states. California, one of the first states to permit autonomous vehicle testing on public roads, has 62 companies registered to perform testing, while Pittsburgh has five.

According to marketing firm ABI, as many as 8 million driverless cars will be added to the road in 2025, and Research and Markets anticipates that there will be some 20 million autonomous cars in operation in the U.S. by 2030.

Kyle Wiggers@Kyle_L_Wiggers

June 14, 2019 6:15 AM

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