Self-driving car tech firms applaud law

AUBURNDALE — On June 13, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a new bill into law that would expand the testing and use of autonomous vehicles in the state.

Gov. DeSantis signed the bill at the SunTrax autonomous vehicle testing facility in Polk County. Parked behind Gov. DeSantis during the signing was a semi-trailer owned by Starsky Robotics, a tech company that started testing its own self-driving trucks in Hendry County last year.

The robotics company successfully tested a self-driving semi-trailer truck along a closed 7-mile stretch of County Road 833 in Hendry County in 2018. Starsky Robotics founder and CEO Stefan Seltz-Axmacher praised the new bill signed this month.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/Governor’s Press Office
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis holds up the newly signed autonomous vehicle law on June 13.

“Florida’s new AV (autonomous vehicle) law will reduce regulatory uncertainty for AV developers and ensure that entities operating automated systems in the state meet safety and performance requirements,” said Mr. Seltz-Axmacher. “The legislation serves as another significant step toward the realization of the future economic and safety benefits offered by AV deployment. We highly value our partnerships with Florida’s leaders as we work to bring automated commercial motor vehicles to U.S. markets.”

One of those leaders in Florida was Hendry County Commissioner Karson Turner, who Mr. Seltz-Axmacher says indicated last year that Hendry County had roads the robotics company could use. He credits Commissioner Turner for bringing Starsky Robotics to Hendry County.

The 20-page bill will allow self-driving cars without humans on all roads in Florida as long as the vehicles meet insurance and safety requirements outlined in the new legislation. It also exempts operators inside self-driving cars from laws that ban texting while driving and other potentially distracting activities. That texting law, which goes into effect on July 1, makes texting while driving (including messaging, emailing and other forms of typing on a mobile device) a primary violation, rather than a secondary violation. That means in the future drivers can be stopped solely on suspicion of texting while driving.

After signing the bill Gov. DeSantis pointed to the increased safety autonomous vehicles could bring to Florida roadways.

“Signing this legislation paves the way for Florida to continue as a national leader in transportation innovation and technological advancement,” said Gov. DeSantis at the June 13 signing. “The fact of the matter is people are distracted when they drive. So if we get this and it’s right I think you’ll have safer roadways and better use of our existing roads which will alleviate traffic.”

According to the National Highway and Safety Administration, 94% of serious crashes are due to human error. And based on estimates provided by the National Safety Council, traffic deaths in the U.S. topped over 40,000 in 2018. Additionally, 4.5 million people were seriously injured in car accidents in 2018.

Automated vehicles have the potential to remove human error from the crash equation, which could help protect drivers and passengers, as well as bicyclists and pedestrians.

One of the pioneers of putting Florida on the cutting edge of autonomous vehicle technology is State Sen. Jeff Brandes. Sen. Brandes first cosponsored an automated-vehicle law when he served in the House back in 2012 and was present during the June 13 signing.

“Over the next 10 years we will see more innovation in the transportation industry than we have seen in the last 50 years,” said Sen. Brandes. “Since 2011, Florida has been a national leader in self driving transportation policy. With the signing of this legislation we reaffirm our bold commitment to lead the country as we transition to a shared, electric and driverless future.”

Starsky Robotics CEO Seltz-Axmacher also singled out Sen. Brandes for leading the way on these issues, which helped make Florida an attractive environment for self driving start-ups and tech companies.

“Florida was a natural fit for us in the site selection process as we began building our autonomous business for a variety of reasons, including Sen. Jeff Brandes’ leadership in thoughtfully creating one of the nation’s first regulatory environments designed to facilitate the safe testing and deployment of automated vehicles,” explained Mr. Seltz-Axmacher. “In addition, the state’s excellent attention to highway infrastructure development and maintenance, competitive freight environment, welcoming business community and ideal weather conditions have made Florida an excellent home base for our testing operations.”

Starsky Robotics is working on making trucks autonomous on the highway, while having drivers control the trucks remotely from teleoperations centers for the first and last mile of their trip. The hope is that this will let drivers stay closer to home, cutting down on the grueling time on the road that drivers spend away from their families.

The company is currently hiring CDL Class A drivers with at least nine months of on-the-road experience. If you’re interested in joining Starsky Robotics, you can visit drivestarsky.com to apply or learn more about the positions.

“I applaud the governor for his continued commitment to invest in emerging transportation technologies,” said Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Kevin Thibault at the June 13 signing. “Autonomous vehicles are the way of the future and Florida is leading the charge through the research, testing and development of autonomous vehicles. And now with this bill signed into law by Gov. DeSantis, Florida is ready to lead the nation with this innovative transportation advancement.”

Richard Marion is a staff writer and photographer at Lake Okeechobee News and can be reached at rmarion@newszap.com.

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