Arrival of self-driving vehicles on Florida roads raises liability questions

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently signed a bill that allows fully automated cars on state roads without a human driver or anyone else inside the vehicle. While self-driving technology is viewed as the future of transportation, it raises important safety concerns as well as questions about legal implications if accidents occur.

The law only allows fully autonomous cars of levels four or five on public roads. Since they are still being tested, it may be a while before prototypes of driverless vehicles will actually debut in Florida.

The new legislation establishes a legal framework for self-driving vehicles to operate within the state. Carmakers and tech companies like Tesla, Uber, Google and General Motors seeking to test autonomous cars on Florida roads must follow basic safety and insurance regulations.

The bill was sponsored by state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. Commenting on the potential liability of self-driving cars, he said the state will turn to the example of rides-haring vehicles like Uber for their liability models.

In a semi-autonomous car, the human driver is expected to share responsibility for any accident that occurs. In contrast, fully autonomous vehicles are entirely controlled by self-driving software.

The state law clearly notes the self-driving system is considered the vehicle’s operator when it is engaged. This clause implies the party that built the autonomous technology prototype is responsible in the event of an accident. The risk of liability compels engineers and self-driving software developers to ensure their technology is safe and reliable.

Existing liability laws will apply to accidents resulting from unforeseen events such as poor weather or a deer encounter. When asked about a recent crash in which a Tesla vehicle struck a semitrailer while on autopilot, Brandes said the driver was completely responsible for it since “Tesla isn’t a self-driving car. It really is a level two or a two plus.”