California governor vetoes bill requiring human drivers in robo trucks

Route 404: Human driver requirement not found

California Governor Gavin Newsom has vetoed a state bill that would have required autonomous trucks on state roads to be chaperoned by a human safety operator.

"Assembly Bill 316 is unnecessary for the regulation and oversight of heavy-duty autonomous vehicle technology in California, as existing law provides sufficient authority to create the appropriate regulatory framework," said Newsom in his veto message [PDF] to the State Assembly on Friday.

Newsom said the California Department of Motor Vehicles, which monitors the testing and operations of autonomous vehicles, will draft rules for light-duty and heavy-duty trucking versions with input from the public, industry, and other interested parties in the coming months.

Citing his administration's focus on the impact of technology on employment, Newsom pointed to his past engagement with organized labor and said he is "committed to incentivizing career pathways and training for the necessary workforce specifically associated with this technology."

Organized labor, specifically the Teamsters Union, had urged Newsom to sign AB 316 and last week held a public rally to that effect.

After failing to secure the desired outcome Sean O'Brien, general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, denounced Newsom's veto.

"Gavin Newsom doesn’t have the guts to face working people," said O'Brien. "He’d rather give our jobs away in the dead of night."

The bill, O'Brien claimed, had the support of 95 percent of the state legislature and of 75 percent of the public.

In August, the California Public Utilities Commission granted GM Cruise and Alphabet's Waymo permission to offer driverless taxi service in San Francisco around the clock, following the approval of more limited terms of operation last year.

These machine-piloted cars have been involved in around 600 incidents in San Francisco since June 2022, causing traffic delays and prompting objections from San Francisco police and fire officials for hindering first-responders.

They've also been blamed erroneously: stopped Cruise robotaxis were initially implicated in the delay of an ambulance carrying an injured pedestrian who died on August 14, according to a San Francisco Fire Department incident report.

But Cruise disputed that account and a joint statement from the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency and SFFD said, "The San Francisco Fire Chief has not attributed this pedestrian death to Cruise AVs."

Nonetheless, claims about the dangers of software-based driving, such as Tesla's Autopilot system, are showing up in more frequently in court cases. And there's no reason to believe self-driving trucks will be flawless, though robo-taxi firms like Waymo maintain their computer-controlled cars are safer than human-driven vehicles (based on data operating in limited markets and weather conditions).

In a June op-ed for The Los Angeles Daily News, Adam Kovacevich, founder and CEO of lobbying group Chamber of Progress and a former Google policy exec, argued that self-driving trucks can inject billions into the state economy and create thousands of jobs.

Those jobs would not affect truck drivers, an area that doesn't have enough people in part due to low salaries and heavy workloads. Ironically, Waymo several years ago had problems retaining employees due to high salaries – employees reportedly made so much they no longer needed to work.

According to a paper published in January by boffins from the University of Missouri, the trucking industry faces a shortage of about 800,000 drivers presently, a figure that is projected to double by 2030.

The authors – Shannon Lively, Quimeka Saunders, Scott Morris, and Kara Rassmussen – argue autonomous trucks can help reduce the average cost per mile to ship goods by 15 percent, resulting in a potential savings of about $50 billion annually.

Victims of collisions with future autonomous trucks will no doubt appreciate that, particularly as they or their heirs are unlikely to see any autonomous truck company executive or engineer imprisoned if the fault follows from shoddy software. ®

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