A California bill that would require human drivers inside robotic trucks will force Democratic lawmakers to choose between their labor allies and Silicon Valley over how to regulate the emerging autonomous vehicle industry.
Tech companies contend the bill would disrupt ongoing efforts by the Department of Motor Vehicles to create road rules for the big rigs and trucks of the future. Unions, most notably the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, argue those regulations could portend an end to many trucker jobs, and that autonomous vehicles’ safety on the road is still undetermined.
The autonomous vehicle industry is fighting the bipartisan measure (A.B. 316), authored by Assemblymembers Cecilia Aguiar-Curry (D) and Tom Lackey (R), which has a significant presence in the state as the Bay Area is home to seven companies who hold DMV permits to conduct testing of driverless cars. The bill was introduced after the DMV announced it would develop regulations to let companies test driverless 18-wheelers and other vehicles weighing over 10,001 pounds.
“This has been not the easiest conversation” with the industry, Assembly Transportation Committee Chair Laura Friedman said in an interview ahead of the bill’s first public hearing on Monday.
The Los Angeles-area Democrat, who is running to succeed Rep.
“The idea of having very large, potentially destructive and heavy vehicles moving very rapidly on our streets without a driver behind the wheel at this point seems like it’s, like the technology may not be ready,” Friedman said. The measure will need at least eight votes in favor to advance in the legislature where Democrats hold supermajorities in both chambers.
Assemblymember Marc Berman (D), another Transportation Committee member, hasn’t yet taken a position on the bill and serves as an example of the competing demands within the debate.
He represents much of Silicon Valley and has accepted over $21,000 in campaign contributions from
“I’ve had conversations with both sides,” Berman said in a brief interview.
Twenty-two states allow autonomous vehicles — both light-duty cars and trucks — on the road, according to the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association. Arizona and Texas, with their many freight hubs, long stretches of highway, and sunny weather, are hotbeds for testing self-driving semi-trucks.
But California serves as the critical link for the industry’s US growth, with its market of more than 39 million residents, juggernaut agricultural output, and key Pacific ports. Tech advocates say automation would cut costs for trucking firms and consumers and ease the logistics challenges of long-haul driving.
“We need to find a more effective way to get goods to where they need to be,” said Assemblymember Juan Carrillo (D), a Transportation Committee member who said he is undecided on the bill. His Southern California desert district includes thoroughfares to Las Vegas and the rest of the country.
The industry cites Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration statistics to show that automated vehicles would lead to safer roads: 4,842 people died in accidents involving large trucks in 2020, although factors outside of the driver’s control— like another vehicle, person, or animal—were the cause of the accident 63% of the time. The industry argues that its technology has the potential to reduce that crash rate. A 2022 Waymo study concluded that their driverless technology could have prevented more than half of the fatal collisions in a 10-year period by avoiding the human errors that contributed to the crashes.
“These heavy-duty trucking accidents are among the most horrific that you will ever see,” said Jeff Farrah, executive director of the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association. “We think that we have a better way that is safer, ultimately, for people across the country.”
But research into autonomous vehicles is still in its infancy, making comparison into the numbers on truck-related deaths too early to tell, said Philip Koopman, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who has been working on self-driving car safety for more than 25 years.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data pegs the ratio of fatalities per miles traveled at 1.27 deaths per 100 million miles driven by all of the vehicles in the country. Driverless trucks haven’t traveled far enough to prove they can beat humans’ safety record, Koopman said.
“For all the trash talking industry does for how bad human drivers are, that’s pretty darn impressive,” he said.
A YouTube video from last year highlighted the unpredictability of the new technology inside autonomous trucks, potentially fueling fears of the public and presenting a PR nightmare for the industry. The video shows a large truck engineered with TuSimple Holdings Inc. software suddenly veering to the left, crossing a lane, and running into the concrete center divider, narrowly avoiding another vehicle. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration earlier this month closed its investigation into the incident, and TuSimple has made improvements to its systems as a result of the accident, the company said.
Beyond such viral moments, the autonomous truck debate also comes at a dismal time for the industry. Two companies focused on driverless-truck technology, Embark LLC and Waymo, recently announced layoffs of more than 200 employees in the Bay Area. The downsizing is in part the result of the slower than expected commercialization of capital-intensive technology, Farrah of the autonomous vehicle industry group said.
Deployment of autonomous cars also has met roadblocks. Cruise and Waymo want to expand their experiment into robo-taxis in San Francisco, extending the hours and the areas where the self-driving cars can operate. But city officials earlier this year asked state regulators to slow down the expansion, citing traffic problems that included “unplanned and unexpected stops in travel lanes” and “intruding into active emergency response scenes” among other issues. Separately, federal regulators are looking into whether
“I think they’re very desperate to get their technology on the road as fast as possible,” said Matt Broad, a legislative advocate for the California Teamsters Public Affairs Council. The Teamsters represents truck drivers in many industries with UPS being the single largest employer by membership.
The bill, Broad said, wouldn’t prevent the companies from testing their technology. The measure, however, would make the potentially lucrative commercial trucking market a nonstarter for the foreseeable future for the sector in California, resulting in big financial setbacks for the local industry.
“Despite the fact that many of the leading companies are based in California, are providing a lot of economic value in California, Californians themselves don’t get the benefit of AV trucks,” Farrah of the industry group said. “Because some in the state legislature are threatening to disrupt it.”
To contact the reporter on this story:
To contact the editors responsible for this story: