June 9, 2023
Concern is growing in the autonomous vehicle (AV) industry over potential legislation in California that could have a major impact on the future of self-driving trucks.
The state has long prevented testing of autonomous trucks, but the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has been moving toward lifting its ban. Now, though, the California Assembly has passed a bill that would necessitate a human safety operator to be present at all times in heavy-duty AVs (more than 10,000 pounds) on public roads, and which is to be voted on in the Senate.
Those backing the bill (known as AB 316) believe it is necessary to deliver job security for truck drivers, and also that it promotes safety for road users. However, those on the opposite side of the fence do not agree, arguing that many of the benefits of autonomy are likely to be eliminated if a human presence is required at all times.
They also argue that legislation is likely to have a detrimental effect on California.
The prevailing mood in the industry was summed up by the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association (AVIA) which issued a statement on the bill after it was passed by the Assembly.
“AB 316 is a preemptive technology ban that will put California even further behind other states and lock in the devastating safety status quo on California’s roads, which saw more than 4,400 people die last year,” said AVIA Executive Director Jeff Farrah. “AB 316 undermines California’s law enforcement and safety officials as they seek to regulate and conduct oversight over life-saving autonomous trucks.
“We encourage Governor [Gavin] Newsom and the State Senate to reject AB 316 so Californians will benefit from the safety and supply chain benefits of autonomous trucks.”
The bill is being backed by the Teamsters union, which takes a different view. In a statement of their own, driver Fernando Reyes said: “California highways are an unpredictable place, but as a Teamster truck driver of 13 years, I’m trained to expect the unexpected. I know how to look out for people texting while driving, potholes in the middle of the road, and folks on the side of the highway with a flat tire. We can’t trust new technology to pick up on those things.
“My truck weighs well over 10,000 pounds. The thought of it barreling down the highway with no driver behind the wheel is a terrifying thought, and it isn’t safe.” assembly member Cecilia Aguiar-Curry (D-Winters) added: “This joint effort with the Teamsters and Labor Federation will slow the profit-motivated drive to human-less trucking by putting the Legislature between venture capital, well-paid jobs and public safety.”
California’s stance of not allowing autonomous testing of trucks has long been a bone of contention. A group of major stakeholders, including Waymo, Aurora and Luminar, wrote an open letter to Governor Newsom last year urging him to reconsider. California’s position has seen much of the development of self-driving trucks take place in America’s southern states, with the likes of Kodiak operating in Texas and Oklahoma. Even though human operators are currently still required there, driverless trucking is the ultimate aim.
Should California proceed with the AB 316 bill, though, the industry could get increasingly fractured, with inter-state freight runs, for example, likely to become problematic. Governor Newsom will have the final sign-off, should the Senate vote in favor.
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