This may not be first steps on the moon; however, on June 16, 2019, a heavy-duty commercial truck drove along Florida’s Turnpike with no driver inside. The truck successfully drove 9.4 miles navigating a rest area, merging onto the highway, changing lanes, and keeping a speed of 55 mph. The entire 9.4 mile journey can be watched on YouTube. The company behind this feat is Starsky Robotics. The semi-truck was initially driven remotely. Once on the highway, the truck was placed into autonomous mode for a period of time. The entire time, the remote operator was monitoring the truck. What an amazing thing to watch!
Three days prior, on June 13, 2019, Florida’s Governor, Ron DeSantis, signed into law a bill allowing further testing of self-driving technology. The bill, HB 311, changed the definition of an autonomous vehicle to be a subset of an “automated driving system” which also includes a dynamic driving task, fully autonomous vehicle, and operational design domain. The autonomous vehicle is now defined as “any vehicle equipped with an automated driving system.” Why is this important? Because upon making this change, the legislature also changed whom will be deemed to be the operator of the vehicle. In other words, who is deemed liable for an accident or incident? Under the new statute, the “automated driving system, when engaged, shall be deemed to be the operator of an autonomous vehicle.” No longer is the person engaging the autonomous vehicle, whether physically present, deemed the operator.
This makes way for the opportunity for semi-trucks to be operated remotely, as seen in the Starsky Robotics operation. In recent years, according to the American Trucking Association, there are less people interested in a career in truck driving. The changes to the Florida laws helps find a solution to the shortage. The Florida legislation included the definition for the capability of using a remote operator – teleoperation system. The remote operator is a “remote human operator” not physically present in a vehicle equipped with an automated driving system. However, the operator “must be physically present in the United States and be licensed to operate a motor vehicle by a United States jurisdiction.”
The teleoperation system must also be able to alert the remote human operator if a failure in the automated driving system has been detected. The system must then allow the remote human operator to take control of the autonomous vehicle. The legislature added an interesting twist, that is, they added an “or” to this last requirement. The “or” is the remote human operator, in the alternative to taking complete control, must be able to achieve a “minimal risk condition.” Can we say term of art? A “minimal risk condition” means a reasonably safe state, such as bringing the vehicle to a complete stop and activating the vehicle’s hazard lights. What is reasonable will always depend on the situation. More importantly, reasonable is usually tested against another’s actions. Here, we are testing reasonable against another system. The remote human operator appears to have no potential for liability as long as the system allows for reasonable actions.
Starsky and Florida are taking big steps in the autonomous vehicle world. They must be applauded for their progressive approach to solving legal, technological, and employment problems. Starsky placed a semi-truck on the road operated by a remote human who could place the truck into autonomous mode. Florida has taken it upon themselves to approach autonomous vehicles as products, potentially removing layers of liability issues from the matrix. These big steps are just the beginning. Keep on trucking!