Autonomous vehicle push hits speed bump in several states

So-called driver-in legislation was introduced in California, Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska, New Mexico and Texas.
Tractor trailers are stacked up on the shoulder along the eastbound lanes of Interstate 70 near East Airpark Road, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, in Aurora, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The road to testing autonomous vehicles without a human driver got bumpy recently as several states consider legislation backed by the Teamsters union to require that a safety driver always be on board.

The brake pump comes as the AV industry prepares for level 4 and 5 automation, where no driver is needed, and amid the prevailing trend of nearly two dozen states explicitly allowing the testing and deployment of driverless vehicles. So-called driver-in legislation has been introduced in California, Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska, New Mexico and Texas.

The biggest fight is likely to play out in California, where the Teamsters are backing a bill that would prohibit medium- and heavy-duty vehicles weighing 10,000 pounds or more from operating on public roads without a human safety driver. The bipartisan bill, which boasts more than 20 coauthors, cleared its first committee this week with strong support. 

Backers say it is about protecting public safety and jobs.

“We are not going to let the tech companies, or any politicians kill anyone in our communities or kill our jobs with the use of autonomous vehicles,” Lindsay Dougherty of Teamsters Local 399 said in a statement announcing the legislation earlier this year.

If approved, the law would preempt the California Department of Motor Vehicles from issuing rules allowing heavier autonomous vehicles to ply the roads without a driver. California currently allows driverless light-duty vehicles under certain circumstances. 

In January, the DMV held a workshop with the California Highway Patrol that signaled what the agency calls a “starting point for the potential development of heavy-duty autonomous vehicle regulations.”

“We don’t want the DMV to make this decision,” said Jason Rabinowitz of Teamsters Joint Council 7 in Northern California. “A decision of this magnitude should be made by the legislature.”

The bills in multiple states have alarmed AV industry leaders, who view it as a “concerted effort” to throw up roadblocks just as the industry is reaching a point of maturity that allows for a shift away from human safety drivers.

“Trying to wedge these driver-only bills into these state capitols is something that we think is not the right way to do it,” Jeff Farrah, executive director of the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association, told Pluribus News.

The California bill has drawn the opposition of more than 40 companies and business organizations who say autonomous trucks offer the promise of safer roads, more reliable supply chain efficiency and new career opportunities. At a public hearing this week in Sacramento, Farrah urged lawmakers to let the DMV’s rulemaking process for autonomous trucks proceed without legislative interference.

“[The bill] is a blunt tool that would effectively impose a permanent ban on AV trucks in California with no articulated path for the state to approve autonomous trucks and without any demonstration of why a human operator will improve safety,” Farrah testified.

The prime author of the bill, Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry (D), disputed that characterization while also rejecting the idea of amending her bill to include a sunset date when the prohibition would expire. 

“The suggestion that it is a ban on testing and deployment of autonomous trucking is a cynical attempt by some to mischaracterize and confuse,” Aguiar-Curry said at the hearing.

Aguiar-Curry cited San Francisco’s experience with light-duty driverless vehicles as an impetus for her bill. She pointed to incidents where the vehicles have blocked intersections and impeded emergency vehicles, among other issues. She argued that trucks, because of their size and weight, pose an “exponentially greater threat to the public.”

“While I do believe this technology has great potential, there is absolutely no reason to believe this experience won’t be repeated in testing driverless trucks,” Aguiar-Curry testified.

The California Labor Federation has gone further, warning of doomsday scenarios involving driverless trucks, including that the technology could be hacked and a semi carrying hazardous materials turned into a weapon.

To address that and other more routine safety risks, the bill would require a trained and licensed human safety operator behind the wheel of autonomous trucks.

AVIA’s Farrah countered that the AV industry has a “remarkable safety record” and said the industry offers a path to dramatically reducing the nearly 40,000 motor vehicle fatalities each year in the U.S., including those involving trucks.

Another key concern driving the California bill is the loss of truck driving jobs. Aguiar-Curry said that autonomous trucks could “decimate” the trucking workforce and that her bill would serve as an incentive for the AV industry to train and transition the workforce.

The industry responds that AV trucks could help address a gaping truck driver shortage, estimated in 2021 by the American Trucking Association at 80,000 drivers. AV backers sketch out a future in which autonomous trucks would handle freight-hauling between cities and then human drivers would take over in the more urban areas. This would allow drivers to work closer to home and avoid what Farrah called the “dangerous, boring” parts of long-haul trucking.

“People who drive trucks for a living are going to have a far better quality of life,” Farrah said.

Some states are moving ahead this year with legislation preparing for roads with AVs. Kentucky and Mississippi are advancing legislation this year that would pave the way for driverless vehicles and allow for truck platooning, when one truck leads another via wireless communication.

Still, citing job and safety concerns and polling that shows public skepticism, the Teamsters have made passing legislation to limit AV deployment a national priority.

“The conversation around autonomous vehicles is shifting. More and more, voters from all backgrounds are seeing fully driverless commercial vehicles for what they are — threats to public safety and a stable workforce,” Matt McQuaid, with the Teamsters Washington, D.C. office, said in an email.

During the public hearing in Sacramento, lawmakers repeatedly said they are optimistic about the future of AVs and their ability to ultimately make the roads safer, but also expressed concern about moving too quickly to deploy the technology without adequate safeguards.

Transportation Committee Chair Laura Friedman (D) said she is not sure when the time will be right, but that “putting 80,000-pound vehicles on the road without a driver would happen sometime after we all feel really, really good about the state of single passenger autonomous vehicles.”