A California bill requiring a trained human safety operator to be present whenever a heavy-duty autonomous vehicle is driving on public roads in the state is gaining traction. The bill, first introduced in January, passed the state assembly on Wednesday and will now be reviewed by the committee and voted on in the Senate.
Proponents of the bill want to ensure both the safety of road users in California and the job security of truck drivers. AV companies and industry representatives say the move is unreasonable, threatens California’s competitiveness in the AV and trucking industries and hinders the advancement of a technology that could save lives.
“AB 316 is a pre-emptive technology ban that will place California even further behind other states and cement the devastating status quo in California road safety that killed more than 4,400 people last year,” said Jeff Farrah, executive director of the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association, in a statement. “AB 316 undermines California law enforcement and safety officials trying to regulate and oversee lifesaving autonomous trucks.”
If the legislation passes in the Senate, it will go to Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk to be signed unless Newsom decides to veto it. While Newsom has received huge donations of major tech companies and recently befriended tech billionaire Elon Musk, the politician is also well known down technology that puts his constituents at risk.
Risk and safety, that’s what the conversation around AB 316 comes down to. Bill authors and supporters have pointed to instances where robotaxis malfunctioned on the streets of San Francisco and Teslas operating under the automaker’s advanced driver assistance systems, such as Autopilot, have caused fatal accidents.
“California highways are an unpredictable place, but as a 13-year-old Teamster truck driver, I’ve been trained to expect the unexpected. I know to watch out for people texting while driving, potholes in the middle of the road, and people on the side of the highway with a flat tire. We cannot rely on new technology to pick up on those things,” said Fernando Reyes, Commercial Driver and Teamsters Local 350 member, in a statement. “My truck weighs over 10,000 pounds. The thought of him hurtling down the highway with no driver behind the wheel is a terrifying thought and it’s not safe. AB 316 is the only way forward for California.”
The bill does not prohibit companies from testing or deploying self-driving trucks on California public roads. It only insists that a trained human driver be present in the vehicle to take over in case of an emergency.
The California Department of Motor Vehicles, the agency charged with issuing test and deployment permits for AVs in the state, still has a ban on autonomous vehicles weighing more than 10,001 pounds in the state. In anticipation of the DMV lifting that ban soon, AB 316 effectively limits the DMV’s future authority to regulate AVs, power the agency has held since 2012. testing or deployment purposes, unless the legislator is satisfied that it is safe enough to do so.
Additional language has been added to AB 316 to outline the role the DMV will play in providing evidence of safety to policymakers.
By January 1, 2029, or five years after testing begins (whichever comes later), the DMV must submit a report to the state evaluating the performance of AV technology and its impact on public safety and employment in the trucking sector. The report will include information such as exits and crashes, as well as a recommendation on whether the legislature should “remove, change or enforce the requirement for an autonomous vehicle with a gross vehicle weight of 10,001 pounds or more to operate with a physically present human safety operator.” . in the vehicle”, according to the language of the invoice.
Once that report is handed over, the legislature will hold a hearing. If the legislature and governor approve the removal of the operator’s human safety requirement, the DMV will have to wait another year after the hearing date to issue a permit. That means California won’t see autonomous trucks driving without a human in the front seat until 2030 at the earliest.
“If AB 316 passes, California will be an outlier by banning autonomous trucks from driving on their own unless approved by the (California Legislature) through a complicated process,” said Safer roads for all, a coalition of AV lawyers. “Let’s hope other states are wiser and let road safety experts do their job.”