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PolitiFact Fl. Checks Out Claims On Driverless Cars; Rubio Backing Embassy Security Cuts

Jan 18, 2017

Can you really "drive" a driverless car in Florida without a permit? And is the foreign policy hawk Senator Marco Rubio really pushing for a bill to cut security at embassies overseas by half?  WUSF's Steve Newborn mulls over those claims with Josh Gillin of PolitiFact Florida.

You need a permit to drive a car, go fishing or even borrow a book, but how about piloting a driverless car?  Yeah, ready or not, those are coming. Several car companies are already testing these autonomous vehicles. In December, California revoked the registration of more than a dozen Uber cars the state said  lacked required permits.

So state Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg saw an opening, and tweeted, "Hey @Uber, unlike California we in Florida welcome driverless cars - no permit required. #OpenForBusiness #FlaPol," Brandes tweeted Dec. 22.

Is his claim true? Here's PolitiFact Florida's ruling:

California passed a law in 2012 that allowed the testing of autonomous vehicles on public roads. Companies must apply for state permits and put up a $5 million bond. About 20 companies, including Tesla, Google and Mercedes-Benz, have been granted such permits.

California revoked the registration of 16 Uber cars in December 2016 because the state said Uber lacked required permits. Uber complied but argued it didn’t need the permits because the vehicles required monitoring by a person in the car.

While California’s law requires a permit, that’s not the case in Florida.

"Florida has the least restrictive active state laws for the operation of autonomous vehicles," said John Terwilleger, an attorney at Gunster, Yoakley & Stewart in West Palm Beach. Terwilleger represents a company that is involved in developing and using autonomous vehicles in Florida.

In 2012, the Florida Legislature passed a law co-sponsored by Brandes that allowed a person with a valid driver’s license to operate an autonomous vehicle. Before companies could test autonomous cars, they had to submit proof that they had $5 million in insurance.

But in 2016, the Florida Legislature passed new rules that eliminated some of the previous requirements, including the $5 million in insurance. The new law also got rid of the requirement that a human operator be present in the vehicle, as long as an operator can be alerted in case of technology failure and stop the vehicle.

Since there is no permit for autonomous vehicles, the state has no information regarding how many Floridians own one, said Beth Frady, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

Florida law treats an autonomous vehicle in the same manner as any other motor vehicle operating on our roads, said Chris Spencer, a spokesman for Brandes.

Brandes’ comment is accurate, and we rate it True.

In our next ruling, the Middle East is once again providing fodder for fact-checkers. This one is tied up with the attack on our embassy in Libya and the seemingly endless war between Israel and the Palestinians.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was one of three Senators who who once blasted lax embassy security for the 2012 attack in Benghazi, where the American ambassador was killed. A web posting by a group called "The Other 98" claims Rubio is also backing a bill that would cut funding for security at embassies by half - if the U.S. does not move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. 

Here's PolitiFact Florida's ruling:

The image includes pictures of three Republican senators — Ted Cruz of Texas, Dean Heller of Nevada and Marco Rubio of Florida — along with the caption, "The same 3 senators who have spent the last 3 years s------- themselves over ‘Benghazi!’ just introduced a bill to reduce embassy security by 50 percent."

Rubio, who like Cruz ran for president in 2016, also cast Benghazi as a shadow over Clinton’s record. For instance, during a GOP primary debate in October 2015, Rubio said that Clinton "got exposed as a liar" during her day-long testimony before the Benghazi committee. (The Washington Post Fact Checker gave this Two Pinocchios out of a maximum of four.)

And Rubio released a statement that rapped Clinton for the "extraordinary failure" by State Department officials, including Clinton, "to grasp the security risks in Libya and Benghazi in particular, and take the appropriate action to protect Americans stationed in that country."

Meanwhile, the meme’s argument that the senators are hypocrites for wanting to cut embassy security by 50 percent is exaggerated.

The bill at issue is S. 11, the Jerusalem Embassy and Recognition Act, which Cruz, Rubio and Heller laid out in a joint news release.

The main focus of S. 11 is on moving the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem -- something that Congress mandated in 1995 when it passed the Jerusalem Embassy and Relocation Act. Presidents of both parties have declined to carry out the move, expressing concerns that doing so would complicate the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. President-elect Donald Trump is seen as more supportive of an embassy move.

The part about the 50-percent cut for embassy security isn’t made up.

The bill says that if the embassy is not moved, then "not more than 50 percent of the amounts appropriated to the Department of State for fiscal year 2017 under the heading ‘Embassy Security, Construction, and Maintenance’ may be obligated until the Secretary of State determines and reports to Congress that the United States Embassy in Jerusalem has officially opened." The bill has not yet been taken up.

So saying that the senators "introduced a bill to reduce embassy security by 50 percent" is misleading. The senators introduced a bill to move the embassy, using the specter of a budget cut as leverage to support that goal -- not as the goal itself. None of them affirmatively wants to cut embassy security funding, though they are willing to risk that outcome if their primary goal is not met.

In the Jan. 3 news release announcing the bill, the three senators didn’t even mention the threat of a security cut, while repeatedly highlighting their goal of moving the embassy.

Finally, it’s worth noting that this is the fourth time Heller has introduced a bill along these lines -- S.1622, introduced on Sept, 23, 2011; S.604, introduced on March 19, 2013; S.117, introduced on Jan. 7, 2015; and the current bill.

So one could just as easily view the bill’s introduction as the latest in a series of nearly identical bills that Heller has introduced like clockwork since 2011 -- almost a year before the Benghazi attacks took place.

Our ruling

The meme has a point — Cruz, Rubio and Heller did submit a bill that seeks to leverage the threat of a 50 percent cut to the State Department’s "Embassy Security, Construction, and Maintenance" account in the service of forcing the executive branch to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

However, the meme goes too far in suggesting that the 50 percent cut was the purpose of the bill, and it ignores that some of the most important security funds would be untouched. The meme also ignores that essentially the same bill was introduced almost a year before the Benghazi attacks, and it incorrectly labels Heller as one of the more outspoken Republican lawmakers on Benghazi. We rate the statement Mostly False.