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Driverless Vehicles Legal in Florida, Liability Questions Arise

It may seem as if the question of driverless, autonomous vehicles is one we aren’t likely to confront for several years, if not decades. In reality, though, legislation passed by Florida lawmakers in 2012 make it perfectly legal for self-driving vehicles to operate on our roads. In theory, a totally driverless car could pull up next to you with no human occupant and there would be no law against it. 

Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) is the one who consistently championed that measure and continues to advocate for advancing vehicle technologies. He explained recently to The Tampa Tribune that Florida is one of the most forward-thinking states in regards to mobility and transportation, and the goal is to lure developers and other companies to grow expand this technology here. However, that hasn’t come without concern of the potential risks.

As many personal injury attorneys are noting, this technology may not be fully ready. There are practical and legal concerns about how such vehicles are going to respond in real-life scenarios. One recent example of how things might go terribly wrong occurred recently in Tempe, Arizona. As reported by The New York Times, Uber and other rideshare companies started testing driverless cars a few years ago in Arizona, after officials in that state promised not to impose stringent restrictions on developers. Then earlier this month, an autonomous passenger car operated by Uber (with an emergency backup driver behind the wheel) struck and killed a pedestrian.  It’s believed to be the first pedestrian fatality associated with self-driving technology.

The incident is a reminder to those here in Florida looking to further expand this research – and testing on Florida roads – that self-driving vehicle technology is still in the early stages. Governments are still working to figure out how to regulate it.

Uber is just one of a number of companies that are investing in tests to expand self-driving technology nationally. These firms insist this will ultimately be much safer because it will remove distracted drivers from the equation – a growing problem virtually everywhere with the rapid rise of smartphones. But, self-driving technology is still only about 10-years-old, and we’re only now seeing how some of these unpredictable scenarios are going to play out. It’s not always good.

Most of the testing on self-driving vehicles has taken place only in a small number of states that have agreed to lenient regulations (like Florida). Other states, like California, haven’t historically been as receptive.

In Florida, a robotics truck was tested on a 7-mile portion of a state route in Hendry County and successfully completed that drive with no human inside. In February, Ford started testing self-driving cars in Miami-Dade County, in some instances even delivering pizzas. Self-driving taxis are expected to soon be a regular thing at Florida’s largest retirement community, the Villages.

Still, members of the Florida Justice Association have expressed concern about unleashing these vehicles on public roads before they have been properly tested.

“School zones should not be their beta test laboratory,” said the president of the association, adding his group has been lobbying for the state to introduce strong language that makes it clear who is liable to cover the cost of personal injuries when these crashes occur. The concern is that when (not if) one of these vehicles is in a car accident, determining fault could easily become difficult and expensive.

Countering criticism that regulation kills development, injury lawyers have noted that reasonable regulations of automobiles (i.e., expectations on everything from headlights to airbags) didn’t kill the auto industry.

Call Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights. Now serving Orlando, West Palm Beach, Port St. Lucie and Fort Lauderdale.

Additional Resources:

Florida law allows driverless vehicles. Does the law go too far? April 2, 2018, By Caitlin Johnston, Tampa Bay Times

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