In a setback for the autonomous trucking industry, the California Senate passed a bill on Monday that mandates the presence of a trained human safety operator whenever a self-driving heavy-duty vehicle operates on public roads in the state. Essentially, this legislation prohibits driverless autonomous trucking.
AB 316, which secured 36 votes in favor and two against on the senate floor, is now awaiting the signature of Governor Gavin Newsom to become law. It’s worth noting that Newsom, known for his favorable stance toward the tech industry, is expected to veto AB 316. In August, one of the governor’s senior advisers penned a letter opposing the bill, stating that such restrictions on autonomous trucking could not only undermine existing regulations but also hinder supply chain innovation and efficiency, negatively impacting California’s economic competitiveness.
Supporters of the bill, initially introduced in January, argue that having greater control over the removal of safety drivers from autonomous trucks would enhance the safety of California’s roads and preserve job security for truck drivers.
Jason Rabinowitz, president of Teamsters Joint Council 7, expressed his concerns, stating, “AV companies have lost billions of dollars in the self-driving vehicle space over the last few years and are now trying to appease their investors by imposing unsafe, inadequate products on the public. These corporate elites have no regard whatsoever for the safety or prosperity of the communities they will put in harm’s way. Gov. Newsom needs to do right by Californians — not these companies — immediately.”
On the other side, proponents of autonomous vehicles (AVs) argue that the bill not only contradicts the very concept of driverless technology but also hinders the progress of technology that can save lives. Opponents of AB 316 point to the 5,788 truck crash fatalities that occurred in 2021, which represented a 47% increase over the past decade. They compare this statistic to the fact that AV trucks have caused zero fatalities in over two years of reporting and tens of millions of miles driven on public roads, albeit with a human safety operator present.
Currently, the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has a ban on AVs weighing over 10,001 pounds in the state. AB 316 was crafted in anticipation of the DMV lifting this ban and prevents the agency from allowing autonomous trucking companies to remove the driver for testing or deployment purposes, a power it has held since 2012.
The bill’s authors have emphasized that their goal is not to permanently halt driverless trucking in California but rather to pause it until the legislature is convinced it is safe enough to operate without a driver.
As per the bill’s provisions, the DMV must now provide evidence of safety to policymakers. By January 1, 2029, or five years after testing commences (whichever is later), the DMV must submit a report to the state assessing the performance of AV technology and its impact on public safety and employment in the trucking sector. The report will include data on disengagements and crashes, as well as a recommendation regarding the necessity of human safety operators in heavy-duty AVs.
Following approval, the DMV must wait an additional year before issuing permits. Consequently, it may not be until 2030 at the earliest that California witnesses autonomous trucks operating without a human in the front seat.
The DMV has expressed its opposition to AB 316, arguing that it will not enhance safety and will, in fact, discourage the development of technology in California intended to increase safety on the roads.