Florida’s Autonomous Vehicle Statute

Car Accidents

Florida became the first state to completely legalize “autonomous” or “self-driving” cars in 2016 for use on public roadways with a unanimous vote.  Since then, there have been at least two deaths on public highways involving vehicles driven in full autonomous mode.

Definition Of “Autonomous” Under Florida Law

Florida law contains the definition at the very beginning of its chapter on uniform traffic regulation.  Section 316.003(2), Fla. Stat. defines “autonomous vehicle” as:

AUTONOMOUS VEHICLE.—Any vehicle equipped with autonomous technology. The term “autonomous technology” means technology installed on a motor vehicle that has the capability to drive the vehicle on which the technology is installed without the active control or monitoring by a human operator. The term excludes a motor vehicle enabled with active safety systems or driver assistance systems, including, without limitation, a system to provide electronic blind spot assistance, crash avoidance, emergency braking, parking assistance, adaptive cruise control, lane keep assistance, lane departure warning, or traffic jam and queuing assistant, unless any such system alone or in combination with other systems enables the vehicle on which the technology is installed to drive without active control or monitoring by a human operator.

Registration Of Autonomous Vehicles In Florida

As of 2016, Florida allows anyone to register an autonomous vehicle under Florida’s autonomous vehicle law codified in section 319.145, Fla. Stat.  This section allows an owner to register the vehicle for use on the highways if the autonomous vehicle continuously meets applicable federal standards and regulations for autonomous vehicles including:

  1. Having a safety alert to the driver if an autonomous technology failure is detected and requires a) the driver to re-take control of the vehicle or b) bring the vehicle to a complete stop if the driver does not re-take control;
  2. Having a visual indicator that the vehicle is operating in autonomous mode;
  3. Being capable of complying with all traffic and motor vehicle laws.

Modification Of Law Against Visible Entertainment Displays

Prior to 2016, Florida law expressly did not allow for the driver of a car to have an entertainment screen that was visible because of the risk that the driver would look at the screen rather than the road.  This is why in-car DVD players and other screens used for entertainment purposes were not allowed.  However, section 316.303, Fla. Stat. was amended in 2016 to allow for entertainment screens visible by the driver to be allowed in autonomous vehicles (so long as they are being drivne in autonomous mode).

Modification Of Financial Responsibility Requirements

Prior to 2016, any entity operating or testing an autonomous vehicle in Florida was required to have at least $5 million in insurance coverage.  The Legislature changed section 316.86,  Fla. Stat. in 2016 to read:

The original manufacturer of a vehicle converted by a third party into an autonomous vehicle is not liable in, and shall have a defense to and be dismissed from, any legal action brought against the original manufacturer by any person injured due to an alleged vehicle defect caused by the conversion of the vehicle, or by equipment installed by the converter, unless the alleged defect was present in the vehicle as originally manufactured.

Thus, a vehicle that has been converted to autonomous use is far more dangerous (as far as legal liability goes) because they have immunity when something goes wrong, particularly in the installation of the equipment.  Considering that anyone with a valid driver’s license can operate an autonomous vehicle under Florida law, the potential for significant injury and legal loss is there with only the driver’s $10,000 automobile policy covering the accident.

Who Is Legally Responsible For An Autonomous Vehicle Accident In Florida?

The full legal answer to this question has not fully developed.  However, the owner of any “dangerous instrumentality” (including a self-driving car) remains legally responsible up to certain caps just because that person owns the vehicle.  Keep in mind that Florida’s dangerous instrumentality doctrine applies so long as the vehicle is being operated with permission.  In addition, a driver of an autonomous car, despite now having the legal ability to watch movies while driving, may still have a legal obligation to pay attention to the roadway and re-take control of the vehicle under certain situations.  This tenet of Florida law will likely be battled out in the courts in the future.  In addition, the manufacturers of “new” autonomous cars will be legally responsible but not manufacturers of equipment used to “convert” existing cars (unless a defect existed as to original manufacture of the vehicle).  We are not sure how the defense to conversion equipment makes constitutional sense and does not violate public policy, however, this issue will also likely become the subject of extensive future litigation.

Talk To A Lakeland Autonomous Vehicle Accident Attorney About Your Case

If you have been injured in a Lakeland accident with an autonomous or “self-driving” car, you should talk to a Lakeland car accident attorney to see who to sue and why.  Despite the self-driving nature of these vehicles, principles of negligence and legal liability are available if you have been injured.  Schedule a free consultation with an attorney today to discuss your case.

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March 14, 2017