California lawmakers want to prohibit fully autonomous trucking

As California regulators consider whether to revoke a ban on autonomous heavy-duty trucks on public roads, labor organizers and allies in the state legislature are pushing back.

The California Labor Federation and several Teamsters locals rallied in Sacramento on Monday for proposed legislation requiring a trained safety driver to be in the cab during any testing or operations of autonomous vehicles weighing more than 10,000 pounds.

California Assembly members Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, D-Winters, Ash Kalra, D-San Jose, and Tom Lackey, R- Palmdale, introduced the legislation. Teamsters and lawmakers cited safety as a concern for keeping employed people behind the wheel.

The bill acts as a backstop in case the California Department of Motor Vehicles moves to allow autonomous trucks on the roads, Jason Rabinowitz, Teamsters Joint Council 7 president, told Automotive News.

“If we are going to roll out this technology, then it should be done by the legislature, not by a regulatory agency,” Rabinowitz said. “It should be well thought out. Protection of our economy should be the No. 1 concern, not the profits of these corporations that are pushing this technology, trying to make us move too fast.”

Joe Garner, a Teamsters Local 315 member, said he was concerned about losing his job to a machine.

“We also cannot overlook the potential cuts to good jobs and how these jobs support the livelihoods of so many California families,” Garner said. “This is not just a job for me. It is life support for my family.”

Kalra said he attended the rally to support protecting truck drivers’ jobs.

“If a truck breaks down on the side of the road, I want one of you to be there to troubleshoot it. I want one of you to be there to make sure it gets safely off the road,” Kaira said.

Companies are already testing autonomous driving in other states, mainly in the Southwest, where weather and road conditions are favorable to self-driving vehicles.

“By prohibiting heavy-duty AVs, the reality is California has become an outlier,” Ariel Wolf, the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association’s general counsel, said at a California Department of Motor Vehicle’s workshop on the regulations last week.

The pushback against fully robotic trucks traveling on public roads also comes as autonomous trucking looks to become the first significant commercialization of self-driving technology in the U.S.

Truck builders such as Daimler Truck Group and Volvo Trucks, along with autonomous driving technology companies such as Waymo and Aurora Innovation, are pushing to move freight with self-driving technology.

Many early tests and pilot programs involve hauling goods across long routes in Texas. For now, all the trucks are operating with safety drivers. But the companies involved in the pilot programs have signaled their intentions to eventually pull the safety drivers from the cabs, probably sometime next year or in 2025.

The freight and logistics industry is looking to build a business based on hub-to-hub freight operations. In this model, a human driver ferries a load to an adjacent highway hub. An autonomous big rig takes over and hauls freight to a similar hub hundreds of miles away, where another human takes the cargo to its destination.

Daimler, Volvo and other truck builders are designing specialized chassis equipped with redundancies that provide backup systems for autonomous driving technology.

Aguiar-Curry said moving too quickly to convert fleets to autonomous trucks is shortsighted and could result in a shortage of workers.

“The supply chain crisis of the past three years should teach us not to ignore emerging needs in this very complex international goods system,” Aguiar-Curry said.

However, it is “imperative” for California’s DMV to begin rulemaking for autonomous trucking now so that the workforce can prepare for the shift, Jeff Farrah, Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association’s executive director, said in a statement following the state’s workshop.

“It’s important to remember that it will take time for AV trucks’ full potential to be reached in the Golden State, with deployment taking place gradually over the years to fill in current and future labor shortages,” Farrah said.

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