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California rolls closer to requiring drivers in driverless trucks

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The California State Assembly on Wednesday approved a law bill that will prevent autonomous trucks from operating on the US state's roads without a driver on board.

The Assembly voted 54-3 for Assembly Bill 316, which now must be approved by the California State Senate and be signed by Governor Gavin Newsom (D) to become law.

Requiring human drivers in so-called self-driving trucks as a safety measure (and as an employment guarantee) doesn't please everyone. The Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association (AVIA), which includes Uber, Ford, and Waymo, argues artificial intelligence would save lives by driving better than people do.

“AB 316 is a preemptive technology ban that will put California even further behind other states and lock in the devastating safety status quo on California’s roads, which saw more than 4,400 people die last year," said Jeff Farrah, executive director of AVIA, in a statement.

"AB 316 undermines California’s law enforcement and safety officials as they seek to regulate and conduct oversight over life-saving autonomous trucks."

Farrah urged Newsom and the State Senate to reject the bill.

The Register asked Waymo to comment. The Alphabet subsidiary has had a trucking division and since last year has been operating a driverless taxi service in San Francisco, California, and Phoenix, Arizona, without too many non-fog related problems. However, a company spokesperson deferred to Safer Roads for All, an industry group in which Waymo participates.

"Safer Roads for All firmly believes that responsible regulation, informed by road safety experts at the California Highway Patrol (CHP) and Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), is crucial for the successful integration of autonomous trucks while ensuring the well-being of all road users," the group said in a statement.

"Instead, Assembly members voted to sideline road safety experts and implement a convoluted process that effectively prohibits autonomous trucks from ever being considered suitable for independent operation."

Embark Technology, an autonomous trucking company founded in 2016, declined to comment as the company is in the process of being acquired by Applied Intuition, a maker of autonomous vehicle software.

The robot trucking biz laid off 70 percent of staff in March, citing lack of venture capital: "The capital markets have turned their backs on pre-revenue companies, just as slipping manufacturer timelines have delayed the prospect of scaled commercial deployment," explained co-founder and CEO Alex Rodrigues.

Slowing the rollout of venture capital-driven disruption appears to be one of the rationales for the bill. Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry (D-Winters), one of two state legislators who introduced AB 316, said in a statement, "This joint effort with the Teamsters and Labor Federation will slow the profit-motivated drive to human-less trucking by putting the Legislature between venture capital, well-paid jobs and public safety.”

We can’t trust new technology to pick up on those things

The Teamsters Union heralded the bill's approval by the Assembly, saying the legislation will protect people and jobs – of truckers at least.

“California highways are an unpredictable place, but as a Teamster truck driver of 13 years, I’m trained to expect the unexpected," said Fernando Reyes, Commercial Driver and Teamsters Local 350 member, in a statement.

"I know how to look out for people texting while driving, potholes in the middle of the road, and folks on the side of the highway with a flat tire. We can’t trust new technology to pick up on those things."

"My truck weighs well over 10,000 pounds," added Reyes. "The thought of it barreling down the highway with no driver behind the wheel is a terrifying thought, and it isn’t safe. AB 316 is the only way forward for California."

After seeing robo-taxis stuff up the streets of San Francisco, maybe it's a good idea to not count out humans entirely just yet. ®

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