July 22, 2023

Are driverless trucks in California a dead issue?


Autonomous truck testing without drivers is allowed in 42 states. California isn’t among them. Barring a turnaround among legislators or a veto of legislation by Gov. Gavin Newsom, prospects are bleak.

The legislation is known as Assembly Bill 316. It was introduced following California restarting long-dormant framework discussions on heavy-duty autonomy under purview of the Department of Motor Vehicles.

“The bill is a direct reaction to the administration beginning to promulgate rules for AV trucks,”  said Daniel Goff, head of external affairs for Kodiak Robotics.

In 2014, the Golden State cleared the way for autonomous testing by light-duty vehicles. That meant mainly passenger cars and a few light trucks weighing less than 10,001 pounds. Larger trucks were left out. Nine years later, the DMV still has not created a permitting process for testing heavy-duty AV trucks, even with a safety driver on board.

Framework discussions spawn opposition bill – AB 316

The Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association (AVIA) and autonomous trucking developers encouraged the framework discussions. It looked like California might finally join states like Texas and Arizona, where human-monitored autonomous trucks advance toward removing the driver.

Commercializing autonomous middle-mile freight hauling only makes financial sense when the 40% cost of trucking associated with the driver is removed from the equation. Autonomous trucks cost many times as much as a traditional diesel or even a battery-powered electric vehicle. They can operate practically around the clock with no hours-of-service requirements.

That doesn’t sit well with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The union pressed for Assembly Bill 5 that makes it more difficult to define a gig worker as an employee. AB 316 resulted. It passed the Assembly 69-4 on May 31 after sailing through several Assembly committees. 

The Teamsters and the bill sponsors claim driverless trucks are a safety risk and that removing drivers would erase good-paying jobs. AB 316 prohibits the operation of larger AVs on public roads for non-testing purposes without the Legislature’s and the DMV’s approval. The bill gets very prescriptive on how and when such approval could be granted.

Passenger car autonomy experience hasn’t helped

The bill requires that by Jan. 1, 2029, or five years after testing of AVs with a safety operator begins, the DMV would submit a report following consultation with several state agencies evaluating AV technology performance and its impact on safety and jobs.

The early results of autonomous passenger vehicles haven’t helped grow confidence in heavy-duty trucking. Light-duty AVs have blocked traffic, stopped in the middle of the road, driven through emergency response scenes, impeded emergency vehicles and caused accidents. California has had a total of 90 AV crashes, the majority being the fault of other vehicles.

“As California considers expanding autonomous technology to include trucks, buses and other large vehicles, AVs have greater potential to injure and kill Californians and displace large portions of the workforce,” Sen. Lena Gonzalez, chair of the Senate Committee on Transportation, wrote in a report before the committee’s hearing on July 11.

The Teamsters union has used stronger language and organized several rallies supporting the bill.

“I support AB 316 because, in addition to setting higher safety standards for Californians, it will help protect thousands of good union jobs,” said Mike Di Bene, a member of Teamsters Local 70 and a driver for Republic Services. “As truckers, we’re essential to the California economy and supply chain; we’re not disposable.”  

Autonomous trucking backers make their case

The autonomous industry counters that the hub-to-hub middle-mile routes envisioned are repeatable and the technology — a fusion of camera, lidar and radars plus teraflops of compute power — make robots safer drivers than humans. 

“Autonomous vehicles can help grow the economy, create jobs, and make our roads safer,” autonomous trucking developer Aurora Innovation said in a statement to FreightWaves. “Similar to the airline industry, autonomous trucks will be supported by physical infrastructure and an ecosystem of jobs that deliver economic value to workers and communities”

Local and regional haul positions replacing long-haul jobs allow more home time for mosty drivers. Weeks on the road away from home is an impediment to recruiting over-the-road drivers.

The first of two Senate committees also has voted in favor of a ban. The legislation next goes before the Senate Appropriations Committee. If it passes there, it will be a step away from a full Senate vote. It is unclear whether Newsom would veto the legislation. He has said little other than a recent comment that “you can’t stop the future.”

Technically, AB 316 wouldn’t stop driverless trucking. It would just create multiple hurdles to implementing it and time delays that would push it into the next decade. Effectively a regulatory process would become a political process.

“AB 316 would require the Legislature to sign off on any permits for AVs,” Goff said. “Generally, legislatures do not get involved in approving permits for individual companies.”

California-based players

Mountain View-based Kodiak is one of three autonomous trucking companies based in California but unable to meaningfully test there. Kodiak has its operations in Texas. San Diego-headquartered TuSimple, which is considering getting out of the U.S. market, runs operations out of Tucson, Arizona. 

Waymo Via, which is slow-walking autonomous trucking amid job cuts by parent Alphabet, also runs test loads in Texas. Its passenger car autonomy proceeds apace in California and Arizona. Aurora Innovation, which also automates passenger vehicles, moved its headquarters to Pittsburgh from Mountain View in September 2020.

Torc Robotics, an independent subsidiary of Daimler Truck, operates in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and is based in Blacksburg, Virginia. 

Political theater over AB 316

Some political theater could be at play as legislators vote to slow autonomous trucking, even as other states welcome it.

Two of Newsom’s biggest constituencies are labor and the technology industry. As he weighs a run for U.S. president, either in 2024 or 2028, one of the two will be unhappy with whatever action he takes. If he signs the bill, labor remains with him. Newsom’s technology supporters would cheer a veto.

Some legislators voting in favor of the bill seek favor with labor. They face no political consequence if Newsom vetoes the bill — of if a compromise is reached that reduces the severity of AB 316.

The Senate suggests a couple of ways to do that. 

Setting specific AV truck performance benchmarks for the DMV to assess before authorizing driverless trucks could be an alternative. 

On the question of job destruction, a multiyear prohibition on DMV authorization of driverless AV trucks with regular reporting to the public, but without the need for legislative approval, would allow time to assess employment issues and for the industry to earn public trust before the DMV authorizes deployment. 

California Assembly votes to ban autonomous trucks

Why does California lag in autonomous freight commercialization testing?

How soon will we see an autonomous trucking shakeout?

Click for more FreightWaves articles by Alan Adler.


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