Autonomous trucking’s future faces test in California

A bipartisan bill to require a trained human driver in the cab of self-driving trucks awaits the governor’s signature or veto.
This is a self-driving Locomation truck parked at the Pittsburgh International Airport in Imperial, Pa., Wednesday, April 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

A pitched battle between unionized truck drivers and the autonomous vehicle industry has come to a head in California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) will soon decide the fate of a bipartisan bill to require a trained human driver in the cab of self-driving trucks.

California lawmakers gave the greenlight to Assembly Bill 316 last week, marking the legislative end of a contentious nine-month journey that featured intense lobbying on both sides of the issue.

The bill passed with nearly unanimous votes in both the state Senate and Assembly. But despite that broad support, it still faces a potential veto after a pair of state agencies formally registered their opposition.

The Teamsters union and other backers of the bill are ramping up pressure on Newsom to sign it. 

The Teamsters staged rallies this week in Los Angeles and Sacramento. At the Sacramento event, union leaders warned Newsom, a potential future presidential contender, of long-term political consequences if he decides to issue a veto.

“This is about safety, this is about saving jobs,” Chris Griswold, president of Teamsters Joint Council 42, said at the rally. “You know about the Teamsters, [we] never forget and we never forgive. Gavin Newsom better remember that.”

Newsom is also hearing from the bill’s opponents. A coalition of more than 70 business groups and other entities — including the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association and the World Blind Union — signed a veto request letter last week.

“AB 316 is effectively a permanent ban on driverless trucks that would undermine California’s regulatory process, divert resources away from agencies with expertise to regulate AV technology, block Californians from accessing the benefits of autonomous trucking technology, and further set back the state on this critical innovation,” the letter said.

The legislation would ban autonomous medium- and-heavy-duty trucks weighing 10,001 pounds or more from public roads unless they had a human safety driver onboard. If enacted, California would become the first state to institute such a requirement, putting it at odds with at least 23 other states that explicitly allow driverless autonomous vehicles.

Such a prohibition could give momentum to similar Teamsters-backed legislation in other states. So-called driver-in bills were also introduced this year in Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Mexico and Texas.

The Teamsters insist that hundreds of thousands of truck driver jobs are at stake if autonomous trucks take over. The AV industry counters that the technology would create new types of jobs and help address a shortage of truck drivers.

In California, the Newsom administration’s issues with the bill were outlined in letters from the Department of Motor Vehicles, which currently has authority for regulating autonomous trucks, and the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development, which wrote to the author of the bill last month to register their formal opposition to the legislation.

“GO-Biz has serious concerns about AB 316’s potential impact on California’s overall economic competitiveness and the state’s ability to carry forward momentum from billions of dollars in recent investments for supply chain infrastructure,” wrote Dee Dee Myers, a senior adviser to Newsom and director of the Office of Business and Economic Development.

In his letter, DMV Director Steve Gordon defended his agency’s record as the chief regulator for autonomous vehicles in California and said the proposed law would “not increase safety and will, in fact, have a chilling effect on the development of technology in California that is intended to result in increased safety benefits on our roadways.”

Bloomberg reported this month that some AV truck companies are already decamping for Texas because of a more favorable regulatory environment.

The Teamsters, who recently released a national autonomous vehicle policy framework, have accused the Newsom administration of being out of step with voters. The union points to a recent survey showing broad support among California voters for AB 316.

The fight over AV trucks in California comes as self-driving trucks are already being tested in states such as Arizona, Arkansas and Texas and as the industry prepares for level 4 and 5 automation where no driver is needed.

Besides concerns about truck drivers losing their jobs, safety was a key point of contention in the debate over the California legislation. Supporters of the law pointed to mishaps involving driverless cars in San Francisco and insisted the risk of large trucks lumbering down the road without a human driver is a recipe for disaster if something goes wrong.

The AV industry says AVs are key to reducing traffic deaths.

AB 316 would require regular reporting to the DMV on accidents involving autonomous trucks and incidents where the human driver had to take over. By 2029, or five years after testing commenced, the DMV would have to submit a report to the legislature on the effects of autonomous trucking on public safety and employment.

Newsom has until Oct. 14 to sign or veto the bill. A Newsom spokesperson told Pluribus News the office does not typically comment on pending legislation and that each bill is evaluated on its merits.