Illustrations: Nicholas Little

Florida Claims to be a Driverless Car Paradise. Critics Call It a Lawless Mess

The Sunshine State is luring AV companies with lax legislation, perennial fair weather, and an endless supply of retirees

InIn August 2012, just days before Floridians were set to vote in the primaries, Republican state house representative Jeff Brandes became the target of a peculiar attack ad.

“Technology is great, but driverless cars? Is this really a priority for our state?” an incredulous narrator asks in the 30-second ad. Canned footage shows an empty Prius roaming the streets of a cookie-cutter neighborhood, plowing through a stop sign, and nearly running over a woman with a walker. “Well, it was a priority for Jeff Brandes.”

The narrator accuses Brandes of being “out of touch” and too preoccupied with “driverless, remote-controlled cars” to fix Florida’s economy. The ad includes a soundbite of Brandes telling a local news station, “I had to convince the senate it wasn’t witchcraft” and ends with a bone-crushing car crash off screen.

A 2012 political attack ad on Representative Jeff Brandes.

Despite the ad, Brandes won the primary a few days later, and secured the general election in November. He still won’t stop talking about AVs.

In Florida, “self-driving companies do not have to deal with some of the more challenging issues of self-driving,” Brandes says. “You can operate here year round. There’s good lane line infrastructure that’s heavily maintained. And we have a population where you can make a business case.” Florida’s population is the third-largest in the country, he notes, and the state hosts nearly 120 million tourists each year.

Brandes is an AV crusader. Shortly after he was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 2010, he watched a TED Talk by computer scientist Sebastian Thrun about the future of transportation, which inspired him to make mobility the crux of his platform.

“The future of transportation is shared, electric, and self-driving,” Brandes says, echoing Thrun’s transportation trifecta. He points to the rate of serious car crashes caused by human error (94%) and the hordes of people moving to Florida every day (nearly 1,000) to stress why paving the way for AVs is in the interest of every Floridian. AVs can save lives, he says, and help ease congestion while they’re at it.

Senator Jeff Brandes. Photo courtesy of Florida Senate.

Fueled by advocates like Brandes, Florida is racing to overtake states like Arizona and Nevada as the training ground for tomorrow’s self-driving vehicles. Over the past seven years, the Sunshine State has quietly passed legislation that is friendly to AV research and development, luring companies with prospects of lax regulation, perennial fair weather, and the seemingly endless increase in tourists and retirees. AV startups from Pittsburgh to Silicon Valley have launched operations in Florida, lobbying lawmakers and claiming valuable real estate. With Republican Governor Ron DeSantis recently signing a landmark bill explicitly permitting self-driving vehicles to operate without a human on board, Florida is giving AV companies the green light.

But it’s not clear if the state is ready for an influx of these companies and their cars, which, despite years of hype, have failed to deliver on the promise of full autonomy. The state has a history of AV-related crashes, including two high-profile fatalities involving semi-autonomous vehicles. Critics worry that bad or careless actors could exploit the state’s laissez-faire approach to regulation, and that residents would pay the price.

“Florida has quickly become the Wild Wild West for robot cars,” says Dale Swope, the former president of the trial lawyer advocacy group the Florida Justice Association. Swope, who has researched and written about the state’s AV legislation extensively, says, “There is nothing stopping a Chinese tech company from beta-testing its autonomous 18-wheelers at 7:30 a.m. in an elementary school zone.”

InIn 2012, months before the AV attack ad aired, Brandes invited Google to demonstrate its technology at the state capital in Tallahassee. Google sent two engineers and two modified Priuses to take dozens of lawmakers on semi-autonomous joy rides around town.

In the meantime, Brandes was inserting self-driving clauses into as many transportation bills as possible. In April of that year, Governor Rick Scott signed HB 1207, “Vehicles with Autonomous Technology,” paving the way for the deployment of AVs on public roads and making Florida the second state to include the technology in its legislation. To date, 29 states have passed some form of AV legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Brandes now acts as the point of contact for AV operations in Florida. In June, 2019 he played a central role in DeSantis signing CS/HB 311, an AV industry-backed bill that made it legal for AVs in the state to operate without a safety driver on board. The bill performs a bit of semantic gymnastics, defining an AV’s operator as the autonomous system itself — that is, the vehicle’s sensors and software, not the vehicle’s manufacturer or the firm that wrote the code. Although the bill requires manufacturers to carry one million dollars of insurance and meet minimum safety standards, critics worry automakers may have an out in the case of a crash by pointing to the AV system as the vehicle’s operator.

Florida isn’t the first state to try and entice AV companies with loose laws. Michigan and Texas permit AVs without drivers as well. Meanwhile, Arizona’s lack of regulation signals that the sate is open for just about anything.

“What sets Florida apart is the number of laws,” says Bryant Walker Smith, a professor of law who studies AVs at the University of South Carolina. Walker Smith says that Florida has passed a series of low-profile pieces of legislation that have kept the state out of the headlines, while also signalling to manufacturers that Florida is open for business. Legislators continuously revisit these laws, chiseling them into more specific policy and offering explicit legal clarity on the state’s position regarding AVs. As a result, Walker Smith says, “Florida has managed to go from a state with no real [AV] activity to a state with a fair amount of activity.”

But that lax legislation means Florida can feel like a regulatory free-for-all. For instance, the state does not require companies to register for permits in order to operate autonomous vehicles. That means the state has no idea how many such vehicles are being operated on its roads at any point.

Brandes has previously advertised permitless AV operation as a selling point. “Hey @Uber,” he Tweeted in 2016, “unlike California we in Florida welcome driverless cars — no permit required.”

But that also poses a fundamental risk, Walker Smith says. “Imagine if there’s a crash involving an automated vehicle... and a journalist calls up a Florida official and asks, ‘How many of these vehicles are on your roads?’ If the answer is, ‘We don’t know,’ I don’t think that is going to be reassuring to the public.”

And while fully autonomous vehicles have yet to hit the road anywhere in the country, drivers in Florida have died after relying on Tesla’s Autopilot, a semi-autonomous driving mode that manages the vehicle’s speed and steering while on the highway. In May 2016, a man named Joshua Brown made headlines as the first person killed while using Tesla’s Autopilot. Brown’s Model S failed to see the 18-wheeler crossing the road in front of him in the small town of Williston, just outside Gainesville, and attempted to drive under the trailer truck at full speed. The collision ripped the car’s top off, according to a police report. Brown was pronounced dead at the scene.

Less than three years later, Jeremy Banner met a similar fate in west Delray Beach, when a semi truck pulled in front of his bright red Tesla Model 3. Just 10 seconds before the crash, which sheared off the vehicle’s roof, Banner had activated Autopilot, according to a report by the National Transportation Safety Board. His family is now suing Tesla under Florida’s Wrongful Death Act.

Federal regulators stepped in to shut down a self-driving school bus pilot operated by a French transportation company.

AV incidents in the state have not typically been met with the hammer of the law. After Brown’s death, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration relied on misleading statistics provided by Tesla to determine there was no reason to recall Autopilot. Federal regulators did, however, step in to shut down a self-driving school bus pilot operated by French transportation company Transdev at Babcock Ranch, an unfledged community in Southwest Florida, in October 2018.

“Innovation must not come at the risk of public safety,” a NHTSA administrator said at the time, calling the project “irresponsible, inappropriate, and in direct violation of the terms of Transdev’s approved test project.”

AVs have found other vocal critics in Florida. Swope, a managing partner at a Tampa-based law firm, wants to see laws that more explicitly hold AV companies civilly and financially accountable if the car causes harm, and give the state the power to enforce safety regulations and remove faulty vehicles from the road. That could entail stricter licensing and registration requirements, and could mean identifying automakers as the legal operators of their AVs. For now, Swope says, the laws remain vague: “Who gets the ticket when the robot runs a red light? Who will be held responsible if the robot runs over your child crossing the street in a school zone crosswalk? Who is responsible if the robot gets hacked? The new law doesn’t answer these questions.”

TTravel one hour northwest of Orlando, and you’ll stumble onto 32 square miles of Florida cliché. The Villages bills itself as the world’s largest retirement community, a master-planned oasis for folks aged 55 and up. President Trump recently called it “one of the most famous and thriving communities anywhere in Florida, and really anywhere in the world as far as I’m concerned.”

The Villages prizes leisure above all else: Some 50 golf courses pockmark the property. Residents play pickleball, shuffleboard, and bocce, before cleaning up for afternoon cocktails with friends. Neighborhoods are designed with seniors in mind — wide, well-lit roads; large, legible signs; meticulously manicured lawns. Over the past decade, The Villages has become one the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the United States, and is now home to some 130,000 people.

Last year, AV operator Voyage expanded its autonomous taxi pilot program through a partnership with The Villages. “We love Florida,” says Oliver Cameron, the CEO of Voyage, a Palo Alto-based company that has raised $52 million from venture firms funded by the likes of Chevron and Jaguar Land Rover. “We love it because it has the densest population of our first customer. There are so many of these massive communities down there.”

Voyage now gives occasional autonomous taxi rides to a select few residents whom the company has dubbed “pioneers.” (Voyage wouldn’t tell us how many rides they’ve given nor how many residents participate in their pilot.) Pioneers act as guinea pigs to help train and troubleshoot the company’s self-driving system on roads that are as frequently shared with golf carts as they are with conventional motor vehicles. The company’s goal in The Villages is straightforward: master self-driving in a simple and slow environment for a targeted demographic, and then maybe deploy it somewhere more complex.

“We’ve found this customer, senior citizens, and found locations where there are hundreds of thousands of them.”

“We’ve found this customer, senior citizens, and found locations where there are hundreds of thousands of them,” Cameron says. “We’re going to go after this market first, deliver a product, and then expand to other transportation markets.”

In Miami, Ford and Argo AI are taking the opposite approach, deploying cars in technically challenging environments. Pittsburgh-based Argo AI, a self-driving software company founded by former executives on self-driving teams at Google and Uber, has received $1 billion in backing from Ford and $2.6 billion from Volkswagen since arriving on the scene in 2017.

“Miami is interesting... because it’s an international destination, both for permanent transplants as well as tourists,” says Peter Rander, Argo AI’s president. Florida’s biggest city has as many types of driving as there are drivers on the road. “It’s a pretty diverse place.”

Starting early last year, Argo and Ford began sending their AVs on recon missions, mapping out Miami’s urban environments. Despite the new law, safety drivers accompany the vehicles, and those drivers are instructed to take over control of the AV at the first sign of trouble. Meanwhile, co-drivers sit shotgun and take notes so Argo’s engineers can later refine the system.

Last year, AV operator Voyage expanded its autonomous taxi pilot program through a partnership with The Villages. Photo courtesy of Voyage.

Miami offers “an opportunity to see all kinds of behaviors at an increased frequency,” Rander says. “That allows us to see how other people react and... how the self-driving cars are going to behave.”

Although advocates tout Florida’s weather as a boon for self-driving testing, the environment may pose challenges as well, according to Raj Rajkumar, a professor of engineering and AV expert at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Florida floods and flooding can cripple AVs that rely on clear lane lines for navigation.

In a coastal city like Miami, sunny day flooding caused by the king tides and sea level rise connected to climate change can bring streets to a standstill. Flooding from this past summer’s incessant rain storms created a “public safety issue” at The Villages, according to one official. As climate change intensifies, these environmental impacts are expected to increase and could leave AV operators fleeing for higher ground.

“If you have water even a few inches deep... you will not be able to see lane markers,” says Rajkumar, which would render today’s AV navigation unreliable.

Ford is embedding itself in Miami nonetheless. Early last year, the automaker set up shop in a renovated warehouse on the gentrifying edge of the artsy district of Wynwood, just north of downtown. The company commissioned a mural depicting a kaleidoscopic vision of a transportation utopia on the side of the building, and dozens of souped-up AVs fill the parking lot.

“If you have water even a few inches deep… you will not be able to see lane markers.”

Tampa has also proven to be a popular proving ground: in 2015, the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority was chosen as one of four organizations to receive a $2.4 million federal grant to test driverless and connected car technology. The city’s 14-mile Lee Roy Selmon Expressway has become a test track for autonomous semi-trucks and vehicles. This summer, the Automated Vehicle Symposium temporarily relocated from San Francisco to Orlando, where Luminar, an AV lidar technology company, recently announced plans to turn its headquarters into a manufacturing hub. And seven years after Google’s AV engineers visited Florida lawmakers in Tallahassee, this summer Google spin-off Waymo returned to test its sensor technology on a closed track in Naples.

“We’re interested in the heavy rainfalls in Florida to start understanding the range of precipitation,” a Waymo spokesperson says. “Florida allows us to continue our rain testing through the summer months when it’s hurricane season in the state.”

In Lakeland, just west of Orlando, the state has poured millions of dollars into AV-related projects, such as the Advanced Mobility Institute (AMI) at the Florida Polytechnic University. Arman Sargolzaei, one of AMI’s lead AV researchers, wants to keep AVs off the street until they’re ready. The team recently received a $350,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a new simulation facility designed to test AV hardware and software in real time.

Photo: Alfonso Duran

A few miles down the road from Florida Poly, the Florida Department of Transportation and Turnpike Enterprise is about halfway through construction of SunTrax, a 475-acre site that may someday provide a safer place than city streets for testing AVs. As program manager, Paul Satchfield oversees development of the facility, which costs upwards of $142 million and will feature a mock city, weather simulation chamber, and even an irregularly elevated track designed to mimic the undulating roadways found outside of Florida. With the 2.25-mile outer track complete, construction crews are scheduled to begin on the infield portion by the end of the year.

“It’s a big investment,” Satchfield says. “But it’s going to pay off between the safety and congestion relief, and pushing the technology forward. Perhaps some of these companies come to Florida now and start to set up shop here. The goal is that it becomes its own little ecosystem, where these companies come here and say, ‘Hey, you know what, Central Florida is not nearly as expensive as San Francisco.’”

IIt’s a steamy summer day in Miami, and I’m cruising down Biscayne Boulevard in the backseat of Ford and Argo’s AV. A safety driver sits in the driver’s seat, though he isn’t driving. His hands hover at about 8:00 and 4:00, like he’s waiting to catch the steering wheel if it suddenly flies off. A co-driver sits shotgun. A computer in his lap lets them see everything the car sees — a geometric map of its surroundings. Blue, yellow, and red boxes move around the digital map. Every now and then a red box gets too close and the car pumps its brakes or pulls away from the encroaching object, and the driver grabs the wheel in response. It’s a somewhat uneasy experience, like riding with a student driver.

An elderly couple walks out in front of traffic, inexplicably coming to a complete stop in the middle of the road. The driver intervenes and brakes the vehicle and waves at them to cross the street. Better safe than sorry.

Although self-driving cars have ostensibly been on the horizon for decades, the last five years have seen automakers accelerate the hype. But despite Elon Musk’s perennial predictions or Audi’s and GM’s promises, the age of truly autonomous vehicles is further away than we’ve been led to believe.

The experts interviewed for this article were reticent to put a timeline on the deployment of AVs, noting that the term “self driving” is often misused or misconstrued. The Society of Automotive Engineers has separated driving automation into six levels, from 0 (no automation) to 5 (full automation). Tesla’s Autopilot falls between Levels 2 and 3, requiring drivers to monitor the road and take control of the vehicle if necessary. Level 4 autonomous shuttles, which can drive without human intervention, currently operate at some airports, but in a recent survey by J.D. Power, experts predicted that Level 4 consumer AVs won’t be available for purchase until 2030 at the earliest. Deploying safe AVs has proven more challenging than even the experts originally thought.

All of which forces the question: has Florida gambled on a pipe dream? And could this wager put its citizens’ lives at risk?

University of South Carolina’s Walker Smith admits that true AV is still a distant ambition, but it’s finally close enough to justify investment: “Even though automated driving has been 20 years away ever since the 1940s, the fact that people are now predicting significant opportunities five years away, that gets into the realm of people [being able to] make or lose a lot of money. I put more stock in those kinds of predictions.”

The question now is whether that investment is worth the risk. While experts agree that self-driving cars will greatly reduce the number of vehicular deaths (up to 90% by one estimate), it’s generally recognized, publicly or not, that the vehicles will kill people on their path towards autonomy. Brandes acknowledges the dangers in the road ahead. “Anytime you put a moving vehicle on the road, whether it be with human drivers or with self driving, there are risks associated with that,” he says. “I think the question is what is the state’s responsibility to mitigate those risks.”

“These companies don’t have a specific definition for testing. They don’t know when it’s safe enough.”

For now, Walker Smith says Florida’s current laws have failed to properly mitigate those risks. “All the legislative activity has not brought [Florida] to a point that might be sustainable in the long term.”

“There’s a lot of conversation about whether people trust these technologies,” he adds. “I think this is a premature question to ask. The more important question is whether the companies that are deploying these technologies are worthy of our trust.”

Even some local AV academics are raising concerns. AMI’s Sargolzaei says Florida’s lack of formal guidelines for how companies should test their AVs could lead to preventable crashes. “Our main concern... is there is not any specific framework to say that [an autonomous vehicle] is safe and secure,” he says. “These companies don’t have a specific definition for testing. They don’t know when it’s safe enough.”

Even AV companies worry about these things, although their concerns are with their competitors. Voyage CEO Cameron stressed, “It only takes one bad actor in another company to put the brakes on this thing and ruin it for the rest of us.” The companies we spoke to said they wouldn’t deploy their AVs without safety drivers until they deem the vehicles safe and ready. However, they declined to get more specific than that.

Photo: Alfonso Duran

The public response to AV companies in Florida has been mixed. The driver of the Ford and Argo AV told me that pedestrians in Miami pose for selfies with the car and even toss money at it as if it was a dancer. But other drivers are quick to lay on their horns when the AV obeys explicit traffic laws, such as stopping for yellow lights, and hesitates when taking unprotected left turns at green lights. If AVs and humans are going to safely share the road, vehicles might first need to drive more like people.

The worry remains among some Floridians that the state’s commitment to AVs comes at the expense of its citizens. “The promise of robot cars is intoxicating,” says plaintiff’s attorney Swope. “But it’s important we embrace the technology while ensuring it is deployed in a responsible way.”

Readers of the South Florida Sun Sentinel put it more bluntly when the paper asked for their feedback to Governor DeSantis’s bill in June. Concerns ranged from job loss due to automation to the threat of hackers infiltrating AVs and wreaking havoc on the roads.

“The lack of inspection and certification is unacceptable,” wrote a Sun Sentinel reader named Laurette Ellis. “The lack of a trial over a longer period of time... is unacceptable. Have we gone completely mad?”

Update, 10/29/2019: This piece has been updated to clarify how Tesla’s Autopilot system works.

Writer and journalist from Florida. ISO stories about science and technology for a sustainable future. Also animals.

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