Stephen Cain: A scary proposition — immunity for remotely operated motor vehicles in Florida

autonomous vehicles
The pursuit of progress never comes at the expense of human lives.

It is week seven of the nine-week Legislative Session. The final weeks can tend to be a time in the Session when a host of interesting things happen.

This includes new language getting tacked on bills in the form of amendments that may introduce new ideas for the first time. Sometimes this is a good thing and improves legislation.

Other times it can be dangerous.

DANGEROUS is the case with new language that has been introduced in a Senate bill moving through the process that deals with Department of Transportation (DOT) contractors, SB 266 by Sen. Ed Hooper. The amendment would create new immunity from liability for remote operators of non-autonomous vehicles being operated by a “remote human operator.”

We’re not talking Tesla here — think Waymo, Cruise, or robotaxis. They are driverless vehicles, operated by a remote operator “somewhere.”

As the world transitions into an era of driverless vehicles, it is paramount that we critically examine the potential dangers lurking behind the promise of technological advancement. While the prospect of self-driving or remotely operated cars offers convenience and efficiency, recent incidents serve as stark reminders of the inherent risks when technology fails without apparent cause. In these moments of uncertainty, one question looms large: Who should be held responsible?

Under the proposed language, in Florida, a vehicle that lacks the ability to drive itself would now be legal for a remote-control operator to “supervise” certain “aspects” of the driving. In other words, it would be legal to put a brick on the gas pedal and allow someone in Nevada to steer.

And if the technology fails for some unexplained reason (say the Wi-Fi went out) and the vehicle runs over an 8-year-old girl in a school zone crosswalk, it is unclear who, if anyone, would be liable.

The allure of driverless vehicles lies in their ability to navigate our roads with precision, relying on complex algorithms and sensor technologies to make split-second decisions. However, as witnessed in several high-profile cases, these systems are not infallible. From sudden malfunctions to unanticipated glitches, the consequences of technological failures can be catastrophic, leading to accidents with severe — even deadly — consequences.

In such instances, the notion of accountability becomes blurred, often shielded by legal frameworks that favor technology companies. It is unacceptable that laws designed to foster innovation inadvertently absolve these companies and the operators of the vehicles of responsibility when their products malfunction. The public’s safety must take precedence over corporate interests, especially in the realm of transportation where lives hang in the balance.

Any proposals to shield companies and remote operators from responsibility for driverless vehicle malfunctions — particularly malfunctions that result in accidents — need to be carefully considered. Introducing such a proposal in week seven of the nine-week session is not only hasty but also potentially dangerous.

Companies must be held to the highest standards of safety and transparency, with clear mechanisms in place to address failures swiftly and effectively. Moreover, lawmakers should have the opportunity to examine whether the appropriate regulations are in place, enacting stringent measures to ensure compliance and enforce accountability before considering shielding these operators from responsibility.

The advent of more advanced technology may herald a new era of transportation, promising unparalleled convenience, however, we must not overlook the inherent risks posed by technological failures.

Holding companies and remote operators accountable for these failures is not only essential for ensuring public safety but also for fostering public trust and confidence in driverless technologies. The goal should be innovation and accountability going hand in hand, where the pursuit of progress never comes at the expense of human lives.

Florida lawmakers should proceed with caution.


Stephen Cain is a shareholder with Stewart Tilghman Fox Bianchi & Cain, P.A. and serves as the 2023-2024 president of the Florida Justice Association.

Guest Author


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