- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 1, 2019

A unanimous Florida Senate on Wednesday passed a bill to pave the way for companies like Uber and Lyft to deploy fleets of driverless vehicles.

But safety advocates say the Sunshine State’s rush to regulate self-driving cars is adding to a nationwide patchwork of conflicting rules amid an absence of federal guidelines.

The legislation approved Wednesday would establish insurance guidelines for on-demand ride companies that use self-driving cars, in addition to authorize space for testing. It now goes to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to be signed into law.

State Rep. Jason Fischer, Jacksonville Republican and the bill’s House sponsor, said he wants Florida to lead the way in creating an environment conducive to driverless vehicles.

Safety advocates have expressed alarm over the rush to embrace self-driving technology, saying the industry is being pushed too far, too fast by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

Advocates in Florida argue that an industry with a spotty track record is pushing their state to become a dangerous “testing ground.”

“This equipment and this software at some point in time will fail, and right now Florida is the testing ground,” said William Cotterall, spokesman for the Florida Justice Association.

His comment underscores concern over a lack of federal rules for driverless technology.

The U.S. Department of Transportation encourages businesses and jurisdictions exploring the technology to employ a Voluntary Safety Self-Assessment (VSSA) to prove to the public that safety is paramount, testing is transparent and communication is open.

“Therefore, U.S. DOT encourages entities to make their VSSA available publicly as a way to promote transparency and strengthen public confidence in [self-driving] technologies,” the federal agency says in its “Preparing for the Future of Transportation: Automated Vehicles 3.0” report.

Meanwhile, Congress last year failed to pass legislation that would have standardized rules for driverless vehicle testing and sales.

As a result, places like Florida are creating their own rules. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 29 states have passed some sort of regulation for self-driving cars. Governors in 11 states also have issued executive orders related to autonomous vehicles.

Automakers have complained that, without federal standards, they are dealing with an uneven regulatory environment that is slowing their rollout of new technology.

This has led to some states being used as “laboratories” safety experts say, with Arizona, Texas and now Florida hosting more testing than others states.

David Friedman, vice president of advocacy for Consumer Reports, has argued that the problem is funding, which must be addressed quickly.

Noting that the Federal Aviation Administration keeps the airline industry “extremely” safe on an annual budget of $17 billion, he says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which should oversee driverless cars, has a budget of less than $1 billion and has issued only “voluntary guidelines.”

Public mistrust of the cutting-edge technology has been fueled by driverless vehicle crashes, including a Tesla that crashed into a tractor-trailer at a highway intersection in Florida in 2016. In Arizona in 2017, an Uber autonomously operated Volvo killed a pedestrian.

Last month a Reuters/Ipsos opinion found that half the country believes automated vehicles are more dangerous than traditional one driven by people. The poll found that almost two-thirds said they would not buy a fully autonomous vehicle.

Dan Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California-Davis, told The Washington Times that “most people have never even seen a driverless vehicle, let along driven in one” and as a result, the “public is skeptical of change.”

But Mr. Sperling, who has written several books on future transportation, thinks safety and innovation ultimately will balance out.

“It is not even clear yet that the industry is ready for detailed regulations because the technology is so obviously evolving,” he said.

• Dan Boylan can be reached at dboylan@washingtontimes.com.

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