California, ground zero for the autonomous trucking movement, may soon halt self-driving long-haul rigs. A bill has been advanced by state lawmakers that would ban the testing or commercial operation of autonomous big rigs on public roads without a human driver present. Industry leaders argue that requiring humans in the driver’s seat defeats the purpose of autonomy.
A legislative battle is brewing between Teamsters truck drivers and Silicon Valley tech giants on their home turf. California regulations already limit the testing of autonomous trucks, and the passage of Assembly Bill 316 would make these restrictions permanent and separate the state from more supportive counterparts. This is an odd situation where some of the most innovative companies can’t deploy in their home state.
The legislation’s outcome has a broader reach than just 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 Association estimates is an $875 billion annual industry. Self-driving executives want California to be a foundational part of their plans.
They have forged their technology as a salve for a lingering 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. The pace of development of autonomous trucking has been so slow that this bill seems darn near superfluous.
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 Association says are registered in the U.S.
Safety concerns exist on both sides. Most agree the best way to ensure safety is to have well-trained humans in the cab of 80,000-pound vehicles traveling at high speeds.
Human truckers are collectively the most experienced drivers in real-world conditions. They claim to be vigilant on the road for their own safety and that of other motorists because their livelihood depends on safe driving. Autonomous vehicles won’t know how to do that. You can’t program intuition and experience into a machine.
Human truck drivers’ safety record is not perfect. According to federal records, fatal crashes involving large trucks and buses in the U.S. increased by 31 percent between 2010 and 2020. Concerns have only intensified as traffic deaths involving large trucks rose 17 percent in 2021, a disproportionate increase compared to the overall 10 percent rise in fatalities. On average, about 5,000 people are killed in collisions involving large trucks yearly in the U.S., with about 10 percent of those in California. Experts say autonomous vehicles are as safe or safer than motor vehicles today. But in California, which hosted the trucking-focused ACT Expo in Anaheim this week, it’s complicated. In the early stages of the autonomous era, the state had an uneasy relationship with self-driving trucks.
Political opposition may be the biggest obstacle to autonomous trucking, according to multiple observers. Ongoing negotiations between United Parcel Service and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which represents about 340,000 employees including drivers, provide a relevant context. Democrats, still smarting from the 2016 presidential election results, are determined to court the labor vote, and introducing legislation like Assembly Bill 316 is one way to do so.
Although the bill’s supporters aim to protect union jobs, Talbott said it could actually harm union jobs in the long run. Due to frequent delays and reliability issues, California business leaders are looking for ports outside the state to import goods from overseas. Because we’re losing truck drivers, self-driving technology could actually improve retention.
Long-haul routes are logistical challenges that keep truckers away from their families for days or weeks at a time. Researchers estimate that up to 94 percent of “operator hours” on those routes could eventually be automated. Humans will still be needed for more complex intracity and regional routes for the foreseeable future.
However, automation will bring about a long-term shift. Some jobs will eventually be lost along long-haul routes, but others will be created, while efficiency will improve and safety will be enhanced. As government officials, union leaders, and academics consider the long-term safety and economic benefits of robots vs humans, the arrival of autonomy elicits a more immediate response among rank-and-file drivers.
In the city, robot taxis provide a frightening glimpse of what could happen when autonomous trucks hit the roads. Until the technology is perfected and a plan exists to preserve well-paying jobs, maybe Assembly Bill 316 is a common sense defense against unnecessary risk. The good news for truck drivers is their jobs are safe, for now.
Electrified Mag’s Take: I think we can all agree that the world isn’t ready for autonomous vehicles or heavy trucks but that doesn’t mean they will go away. Autonomous trucking fleets will solve a lot of problems, but it’s our opinion that it will take decades to implement across the nation’s fleet of rigs.
Automating trucking would seem an easier trick than cars because the majority of big rigs spend their time on the interstate system. Think of miles of trucks “daisy-chained” together like train cars in the right-hand lane, staying out of the way of faster vehicles. Although automated trucks don’t need potty or sleep pit stops, they still need to be recharged and safety checked and that’s still unclear how that would be streamlined.
The real fly in the ointment is the devastation to the families that rely on the trucking industry to make a living. We’ll probably see a hybrid compromise that would employ a system like GM’s Supercruise or Tesla’s FSD while requiring an onboard human pilot.
Last but not least, the politics surrounding this are a powderkeg. What tech outfit wants to be the big bad corporation that devastates an entire industry? Also, Silicon Valley hucksters are a tough crowd, but amateurs compared to the Teamsters Union. This is a powerful group not to be messed with, just ask Jimmy Hoffa.