When it comes to developing policy to foster and guide the implementation of emerging technology and smart city initiatives, Florida House Representative Jason Fischer is eager to jump into the details.

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Florida House Representative Jason Fischer, R-Jacksonville, debates on the House floor. (Photo courtesy of the Florida House of Representatives)

Representing Florida’s 16th District, which includes Jacksonville and a considerable portion of Duval County, Rep. Fischer leads many technology related initiatives throughout the state, something he’s more than qualified to do thanks to his long career as an engineer in the energy and utilities sectors. During the 2019 Florida Legislative Session, Rep. Fischer, along with Florida Senator Jeff Brandes, cosponsored autonomous vehicles bill CS/HB 311, which was signed into law by Governor Ron DeSantis in June at SunTrax in Polk County.

As Fischer explains, the legislation works to maintain Florida’s position as a leader in the emerging technology that is poised to transform the state’s experiential economy.

Where did your passion for Autonomous Vehicles come from?

I’m an electrical engineer. That’s what I do. Half my career has been in energy utilities. The other half has been transportation. It comes from my professional background. It’s what I do for a living; I work on smart city initiatives and emerging technologies.

What is CS/HB 311 and what does it do?

The bill allows for true self driving cars to be on our roads. Past legislation allowed for testing of autonomous vehicles and some operation, but, up until recently, our laws required that a licensed, human driver be in the driver’s seat at all times. And under certain conditions, level four and level five (fully autonomous) vehicles can now operate on the roads without having a driver in the seat. We’ll be in a future where some people won’t even have drivers’ licenses if they don’t want to. They may not even own a car. I think autonomous vehicles that will be first available will be via an app, via ridesharing platforms. We have actually called it on-demand autonomous vehicle networks. It’s the same model, but different.

Why Florida? What makes the state such a hotbed for autonomous vehicle technology?

Why Florida? Why not? We’re the third largest state in the nation. One of the things I talk about in a lot of my bill presentations is that in order to get the most people excited about the potential for this technology, it’s important that we’re inclusive of everyone, especially people who are transportation-disadvantaged, people who have disabilities, whether they’re losing their eyesight or simply don’t have it. Folks are getting older and starting to lose their ability to drive.

“This will help people who have disabilities gain the mobility that is quintessential to being an American.”

Rep. Jason Fischer

It’s a fundamental part of who we are—having the ability to be mobile and get around. We have an aging population. It has economic growth, but it’s also another way for Florida to be more inclusive.  

What was the impetus behind this CS/HB 311? What was the tipping point?

Florida has been at the forefront of autonomous vehicle public policy. We’ve been one of the states that’s been leading the way while other states have started to catch up. If we want to continue to maintain our status as a leader in emerging and autonomous vehicle technology, we need to constantly push those boundaries.

In addition to us wanting to keep that position at the top, the technology has advanced to a point where, under certain conditions, which we define in law, the technology is safe enough to not have to have a human driver in the driver’s seat anymore. Now, again, there’s certain conditions that have to be met and certain safety features that have to be in place. But the technology is there for us to start having those cars on the road. Not just testing anymore—full implementation.

So, it’s those two things. We need to be a leader there because we’ve been a leader and need to maintain our status. And if the safety is finally to a point where under certain conditions, we should allow and encourage it.

What was the biggest challenge to the passage of the legislation?

As an engineer, I’m cautious by nature. The biggest concern was always making sure things are safe. When I think about what we’re doing, I don’t want to put anyone in danger. I want the public to be safer, not less safe.

“If you look at the data around traffic accidents, 94 percent of the accidents are caused by human error.”

Rep. Jason Fischer

If we can create the conditions to where we allow the systems and vehicles to make those decisions, we’ll reduce accidents. But only if we do so in a controlled and safe way. The biggest hurdle was making sure that what we’re doing is safe.

So that’s where I started the conversation. How do we make sure we’re putting the safety of people first? Trying to adjust those concerns was probably the hardest thing. The other one was insurance – who’s liable. But my hurdle was moving forward only if it was safe. And I think a lot of my colleagues felt the same way. Unless the technology is ready, and unless we can define what the conditions are, it shouldn’t roll out.

So, when the technology got to that point, we made it very clear in the law how automated vehicles need to operate and what conditions they need to meet before a human driver can be removed. And if they can’t, it’s illegal. If you put a car out there that’s not supposed to be on the road, you’re going to be held accountable for it.

How will it impact Florida’s economy? Regional and local economies?

Much like it was hard to fully predict how the interstate system impacted our economy, I think autonomous vehicles will be the same way. There are logical connections we can make at this point but there are also a lot of unseen, unknowable effects that will only be realized after implementation.

It will transform the way we move people and goods in a way that’s difficult to fully describe—much like how it was hard to fully describe how Eisenhower’s interstate would fully change our economy. I think that Florida’s economy is not as diversified as it could be. By being at the forefront of autonomous vehicle technology, we can not only get companies to come here from Silicon Valley, but we can create our own emerging technology hubs right here in Florida. Part of it is to encourage the best and brightest in our country—the smartest minds—to come to Florida, go to Florida colleges and make their careers and lives here.

“Let’s create the breeding ground for the next unicorn, the next tech billion-dollar company.”

Rep. Jason Fischer

If you’re thinking practical applications, the public transportation system is going to fundamentally change. In Jacksonville, JCA has a skyway with a people-mover that’s been underutilized for decades. They’re looking to convert that skyway into an autonomous vehicle delivery system for the downtown to get people to the stadium, craft breweries and restaurants.

As a result, that area is being revitalized. New businesses will pop up—restaurants and other things—because of this autonomous vehicle bill. Our networks will be redesigned. Our people will be more mobile. It’s hard for me to predict the one for one connection. But when people are more mobile to parts of their community, it creates more opportunity to start business and grow it.

One of the big benefits will be for theme parks and sports teams resolving their parking problems. They’ll be able to create and set the fan experience from pretty much all the way from the fan’s house to the stadium or park and back. They’ll be able to advertise inside the autonomous vehicle. They’ll be able to create a whole experience in a way you’re not able to now with people driving their own cars. There are just all kinds of different forms of marketing you can do with them.

Where does the legislature go from here when it comes to Autonomous Vehicle policy?

We need to look at how insurance and liability issues get addressed through the court system. We’ve done some work on that through legislation, but we won’t know until more data has been collected about how specific liabilities assigned in every scenario where you do have issues. The case law will have to build up around that for a little while. That’s something we’ll have to come back and address in a couple of years to make a clearer law. The judicial system already has all the tools necessary to assign liabilities but that’s not something we’ll be able to get a full, clear picture on until we’ve got more data.

“We need to start feeding projects around the state.”

Rep. Jason Fischer

Let’s try to get counties and cities to start thinking about how they can start developing new autonomous vehicle systems in their own communities. It’s a platform for private sector autonomous vehicles but one they can share when looking at public transportation needs and considering autonomous vehicle solutions.

Sometimes light rail is not the right solution. It’s a fixed asset. It’s hard to move around. Sometimes it would be better to go with an autonomous vehicle delivery system for public transit. How do we seed those? Smart city grant programs. I don’t think it should be driven by state. It should be encouraged by the state and driven by locals.

City of Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer has great ideas when it comes to local autonomous vehicles. He and Osceola County Manager Don Fisher are the ones pushing to adopt it more than others. Those two guys understand what emerging technology means for the Orlando region and I’m excited to work with them.