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In California, the Specter of Self-Driving Trucks Brings a Backlash

In California, the Specter of Self-Driving Trucks Brings a Backlash
In California, the Specter of Self-Driving Trucks Brings a Backlash
May 5, 2023   //   

By Pete Bigelow

California, the birthplace and epicenter of the self-driving industry, could soon put the brakes on autonomous trucking.
State lawmakers advanced a bill that would prohibit self-driving big rigs from being tested or commercially operated on public roads unless a human driver is present. Industry executives complain that entrenching humans in the driver’s seat would defeat the purpose of autonomy.
A brewing legislative showdown pits Teamsters truck drivers against Silicon Valley’s tech elite on their home turf.
California regulations already restrict testing of self-driving technology in large vehicles and the passage of the legislation, Assembly Bill 316, would make those restrictions permanent and cleave the state from more enthusiastic counterparts.
“California is really putting itself in significant jeopardy here,” said Jeff Farrah, executive director of the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association, an industry trade group that advocates for business-friendly policies. “You have this strange situation where some of the most innovative companies are not able to do deployments in their home state.”
The legislation’s outcome has a broader reach than California. It could impact the economic viability of the self-driving truck sector, which otherwise has sought — and won — business-friendly laws and regulations as it seeks a slice of what the American Trucking Associations estimates is an $875 billion annual industry.
Self-driving executives want California to be a foundational part of their plans. They fashion their technology as a salve for an acute human driver shortage and envision lucrative routes emerging from the state’s major ports that stretch across the Sun Belt.
But for now, the pending legislation serves as a bellwether in the politically fraught discussion of how and when automation replaces human jobs.
No such displacement will occur in an appreciable way for at least a decade, said Amelia Regan, a professor at the University of Washington’s Supply Chain Transportation and Logistics Center.
“The pace of development of autonomous vehicles has been so slow that it’s just crawling along,” she said. “It’s moving, but so slowly that this bill is really silly and unnecessary.”
Though some self-driving truck companies are planning their first driverless commercial deployments next year, initial efforts may amount to no more than a few dozen trucks. Collectively, that’s a microscopic effort compared with the 38.9 million trucks the American Trucking Associations says are registered in the U.S.
Safety concerns on both sides
Yet California assemblywoman Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, a Democrat who introduced the bill, sees the arrival of autonomous trucks as an imminent threat to jobs and safety.
“Safety is best protected by keeping well-trained human beings in the cab of 80,000-pound vehicles traveling at high speeds,” she said.
Human truckers are collectively the most experienced drivers in the real world. Because their livelihood depends on safe operations, they say they’re vigilant on the road both for themselves and other motorists.
“We do see things and we do protect people on the roadways,” said Mike Fry, 58, a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 2785 based in Daly City, Calif., just south of San Francisco. “Autonomous vehicles are not going to know how to do that. You can’t program instinct into a machine.”
The safety record of human truck drivers, however, is not unblemished. Across America, the number of fatal crashes involving large trucks and buses increased by 31 percent between 2010 and 2020, according to federal records.
Concerns have only grown. Traffic deaths involving large trucks jumped 17 percent year over year in 2021, a disproportionate increase compared with the 10 percent rise in overall fatalities. On average, about 5,000 people are killed in collisions involving large trucks each year in the U.S., with about 10 percent of those in California.
Self-driving trucks present, at least in some corners, a potential solution to such carnage.
“Autonomous vehicles are safer or just as safe as motor vehicles today,” said Selika Josiah Talbott, founder and CEO of Autonomous Vehicle Consulting and a former U.S. Department of Transportation adviser. “If we use that standard, let’s move forward.”
But in California, which hosted the trucking-focused ACT Expo in Anaheim this week, that’s complicated. In the early stages of the self-driving era, the state had an uneasy relationship with autonomous trucks.
‘Outsized’ potential for ports
When California Department of Motor Vehicles officials wrote regulations for the then-embryonic field of self-driving vehicles a decade ago, they included provisions that barred the testing of AVs weighing 10,001 pounds or more, effectively preventing deployment of autonomous trucks.
Even as California companies such as Waymo, Aurora, Gatik, TuSimple and Kodiak Robotics launched their testing efforts elsewhere, their home state has remained on their long-term horizons.
California’s 12 ports process approximately 40 percent of all American imports and 30 percent of exports, according to state government figures. The Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach are the largest in the U.S. by container volume.
“They have an outsized impact on the country,” said Finch Fulton, a public policy adviser at law firm K&L Gates and former executive with autonomous truck startup Locomation Inc.
Connecting those ports to the rest of the country, particularly along the Interstate 10 corridor from Southern California to northern Florida, holds economic promise for self-driving truck companies, especially as the American Trucking Associations projects a 22 percent increase in the amount of freight moved by trucks over the next decade.
Supply chain logjams at those ports last year, compounded by what the American Trucking Associations estimates is a 78,000-person driver shortage, presented self-driving leaders an opportunity to reopen dialogue with California officials.
But on Jan. 26, one day before the DMV scheduled its first workshop related to automated trucking in nearly four years, legislators introduced Assembly Bill 316. It advanced from a subcommittee last month, affirming the in-limbo status of self-driving trucking.
“It isn’t clear what chance this bill has of passing, but it’s plenty worrisome for everyone in the industry,” Fulton said.
A political backdrop
Political headwinds may be the biggest roadblock for self-driving trucks, multiple observers said.
Ongoing negotiations between United Parcel Service Inc. and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which covers about 340,000 employees including drivers, serve as a pertinent backdrop. Democrats, still stung by the 2016 presidential election results, are intent on courting a labor voting bloc, and introducing legislation such as Assembly Bill 316 is one way to do that.
Though the bill’s proponents are intent on preserving union jobs, Talbott said it might actually hurt union jobs in the ports in the long run. Business leaders in California are searching for ports outside the state to import goods from overseas, she said, because of frequent delays and reliability concerns.
“It’s because we are hemorrhaging truck drivers,” Talbott said.
Self-driving technology could actually boost retention, Regan said. Long-haul routes are logistical slogs that take truckers away from their families for days or weeks at a time. As much as 94 percent of the “operator hours” spent on those routes could eventually be automated, according to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Michigan.
Humans will be needed for the foreseeable future on more complicated intracity and regional routes.
“Those are the kind of jobs that let people sleep at home,” Regan said. “And that will make truck driving more attractive.”
Still, automation will usher in a long-term shift. Some jobs will eventually be lost along long-haul routes, but others will be created, she said, while efficiency will improve and safety will be enhanced.
While government officials, union leaders and academics weigh the long-term safety and economic merits of robots vs. humans, the advent of autonomy provokes a more visceral reaction among rank-and-file drivers.
A tenuous risk
Fry, a Teamsters trucker for 27 years, sees autonomy as a near-term threat to his family. His wife, Raquel, has battled cancer for seven years, and the past two have been full of long hospital stays. Her death is imminent, he said, and he has five children. His job has covered her health care and keeps food on the table.
“If it wasn’t for my benefits, I’d be destitute, and in way worse tatters than I am now,” he said.
Nobody has provided an adequate explanation of what sort of cushion might carry him and his fellow drivers through the sort of job transition that Regan describes, Fry said.
Fry grew up and still lives in San Bruno, Calif., in the shadow of Silicon Valley. He’s not a Luddite, but his truck routes take him through San Francisco at least once a week, and near the Moscone Center, he said he often encounters robotaxis that cause traffic problems and gridlock. That’s a complaint echoed by city officials.
“They absolutely impede traffic,” Fry said. “You have safety and emergency vehicles not able to get to the scene. I know there’s intelligent people trying to figure out these problems. I just don’t think they’re there yet.”
Fry is concerned the robotaxis provide a harrowing preview of what would happen when autonomous trucks reach roads. Until the technology is refined and a road map exists for preserving good-paying jobs, he sees Assembly Bill 316 as a “common sense” bulwark against unnecessary risk.
But risk is not a one-way street.
California, home to the purveyors of self-driving technology, risks isolating itself and hindering its economic prospects. States such as Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Florida and Georgia have provided frameworks for self-driving operations, either by enacting legislation or via executive orders. Mississippi became the latest to join its I-10 corridor counterparts in late March.
“You see state after state across the country moving forward with autonomous vehicles without a driver,” Talbott said. “And yet California languishes on the side of the road, when we should be the seat of innovation.”