Wacky Florida Political Ad Warns of Robot-Car Menace

A Florida state senate candidate gets attacked over his support for driverless cars.

Forget gators, zombies, and escaped pet pythons. The new menace in Florida, if this ad is to be believed, is the driverless cars that terrorize the streets, mowing down slow-moving pedestrians and smashing into things.

The spot is a last-minute attack on Jeff Brandes, a state representative from St. Petersburg running for an open state senate seat in today's Republican primary. Brandes sponsored Google-backed legislation this year that made Florida the second state in the country to allow driverless cars on its roads. He never imagined it would become a political issue.

"The bill passed unanimously through the House and Senate," Brandes told me. "I thought [the ad] was a little bit bizarre. It's clearly trying to scare seniors, even though seniors might benefit the most from this technology." He expects to win today's primary, despite what he sees as a desperate ploy by backers of his opponent, fellow Republican Rep. Jim Frishe -- who, he notes, also voted in favor of his driverless car bill.

Brandes is a true believer in the driverless car concept -- the politically correct term is "autonomous vehicles" -- which he first learned about from a TED video last year. The cars have logged 300,000 miles without an accident, he says, though they are still in testing and not yet commercially available. Once they're widely implemented in the coming decades, Brandes believes, they could halve the amount of traffic accidents, reduce congestion and stress on infrastructure, restore the mobility of those too old to drive and give back all the lost hours of productivity currently spent sitting in traffic -- by, for example, state legislators who have to commute 4.5 hours each way to Tallahassee. (These benefits, however, must be weighed against the terrible blow to the comic output of Dave Barry, who once wrote, "We have so many motorists driving into buildings down here that in some areas you're safer standing in the middle of the street, where they're less likely to hit you.")

Brandes took a driverless car out on the highway, accompanied by two Google engineers. "I was on I-10 going 70 miles and hour, and I took my hands off the wheel and my feet off the pedals, and the car drove better than I did for 10 miles!" he said. It felt, he said, like a smarter version of cruise control. During the legislative debate, he won fellow members' support by taking dozens of them out for a spin. But he acknowledges they can be a tough sell with older constituents.

"It's amazing to have a conversation with people in their 30s and 40s about this technology. They understand -- it's like a cell phone. Of course we're all going to have this in a few years," Brandes said. On the other hand, "Older people are just kind of confused by the whole thing. They just think you're making stuff up and next you're going to say they're being abducted by aliens. They don't really understand that this technology exists. It's real."

The ad badly misrepresents the autonomous vehicle technology. Driverless cars aren't empty -- there's a driver behind the wheel ready to take over; they're not "remote controlled"; and so far at least, they're not dangerous. And as Forbes notes, the "more dangerous than driving" headline quoted in the ad is badly misleading.

I called the number listed for the Committtee to Protect Florida, the PAC that ran the ad, and reached the offices of a Tallahassee-based political consulting company, Southern Campaign Resources. Mark Zubaly, the consultant who answered the phone, said he didn't know much about driverless cars, but the point of the ad was that legislators ought to have better things to do.

"It's, like, a remote-control car, right?" he said. "I don't get it, but whatever. It's kind of like George Jetson, I guess."