Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Florida has become a hotbed for self-driving cars, thanks to its mild weather, unique demographics, lenient laws and an ambitious state senator.

Why it matters: States at the forefront of autonomous vehicle testing stand to reap the economic benefits — and perhaps problems, too — of self-driving cars.

  • With Congress stalled on federal legislation, Florida and other forward-looking states have an outsized opportunity to help shape the laws that will one day govern AVs.

The driving force behind Florida's ascension is state Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, a former platoon leader in the Iraq War who, as a freshman legislator in 2011, turned to the internet to search for a "big idea" he could champion.

  • He was inspired by a 2010 TED Talk by Stanford AI expert Sebastian Thrun, then-head of Google's nascent driverless car project.
  • In 2012, Brandes helped push an AV policy through the Florida legislature, becoming only the second state to do so, behind Nevada.

Then last June, Florida enacted a new law (co-sponsored by Brandes) that makes it even more attractive for companies to test and deploy AVs in the state.

  • Under the law, a fully autonomous vehicle can operate without a human safety driver, as long as the company has $1 million in insurance.
  • California and Arizona also allow companies to operate AVs without safety drivers, but each has restrictions.
  • Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey's executive order on AVs, for example, is not baked into law so it could be reversed with the stroke of a pen by the next governor.
  • In California, companies are prohibited from collecting revenue from AV passengers without a special permit, and none have been granted, AV consultant Grayson Brulte tells Axios.
    • "California has no path to profitability. In Florida, there is a path, because you can charge people," he says.
  • "We have the right ecosystem, and we're allowing companies to thrive," Brandes said in an interview. "Most state laws hurt, rather than help" AV development.

What's happening: The AV-friendly environment has sparked plenty of activity in the Sunshine State, which recently launched the second phase of construction on SunTrax, a 475-acre AV testing facility near Orlando.

Other cutting-edge transportation technology is also being deployed in Florida.

  • Tampa, for example, was selected by the federal government as one of the first cities to pilot connected vehicle technology on real streets, enabling cars, buses and streetcars to communicate with each other to reduce traffic and improve safety.

The bottom line: More than 300,000 people a year are moving to Florida, already the country's third most populous state, with the population projected to hit 26 million by 2030. Growth like that requires preparation, says Brandes.

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