The Senate Transportation Committee passed a series of forward-looking bills on electric and autonomous vehicles. Sen. Jeff Brandes said the legislation will keep Florida leading the pack on the path to the future.
“Florida really is a leader in this conversation,” he said. “This keeps Florida in the driver’s seat.”
But some senators worry preparing for the future may put up disincentives to those who may invest in cleaner transportation options now.
The most controversial legislation Brandes brought on Wednesday dealt with registration fees for electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles. The bill in question (SB 140) sets a much higher fee for such vehicles because, unlike cars with internal combustible engines, drivers for these pay little or no gas tax.
Under Brandes bill as written, the average electric vehicle would pay an annual fee of $135 to help make up for expected losses to road funds as drivers wean off gasoline. Groups like the Environmental Defense Fund, which supports the legislation, note that’s far less than a $200 fee envisioned in another bill filed by Sen. Ed Hooper.
But Sen. George Gainer, a Panhandle Republican, said a lack of rationale behind the fee schedule left him concerned. Brandes said his office came up with the numbers, and the schedule aimed to fall in the middle range of the 26 states charging similar fees. But Gainer said that wasn’t enough rationale and voted against the bill.
Sen. Lori Berman, a Boynton Beach Democrat, voted for it, but expressed concern. She noted her husband owns two electric cars, and acknowledged the household should pay something for their impact on the roads. But she noted she also pays higher taxes through electrical use.
Berman noted studies suggesting fees should wait until 10% of cars on the road are electric, and only 0.5% of vehicles on Florida roads meet that criteria now. But Brandes said waiting that long would mean absorbing a 10% decline in gas tax revenue before taking action. He also stressed regulations will evolve over time, and his legislation sunsets in 2030 with that in mind.
Beyond the fees debate, Brandes also filed legislation (SB 138) that allows more transportation infrastructure funding to go to charging stations at places where plugs aren’t allowed now.
Transportation Secretary Kevin Thibault noted, for example, that statute now doesn’t allow charging stations at interstate rest areas, only because those laws were drafted before anyone envisioned the technology.
Brandes also presented legislation on autonomous vehicles (SB 1620) setting framework for low-speed, driverless delivery cars. While the law defers to federal regulations, Brandes said the bill will allow for more Florida communities to see cars traveling less than 45 miles that serve as personal transit or carry goods to homes.
That drew some concern from UPS drivers, who testified the technology will kill jobs and create the hazard of emotionless robots roaming Florida neighborhoods unconcerned with harming the public.
Sen. Gayle Harrell acknowledged part of that in questioning about how law enforcement may interact with vehicles. It painted a picture of vehicles leaving accident scenes as automatic vehicles proceed unaware of a crash’s consequence or vehicle violating local traffic laws but not responding to police officers trying to pull them over.
Brandes said those challenges within the autonomous vehicle industry are top of mind, and manufacturers are communicating with agencies including the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to ensure vehicles respond to police and have collection mechanisms for tickets.