California driverless truck ban heads to state Senate

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Updated Jun 2, 2023

California Assembly Bill 316, legislation that requires a trained human operator in autonomous vehicles weighing more than 10,000 pounds, passed the California State Assembly Wednesday and heads to the State Senate.

Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association Executive Director Jeff Farrah called the bill "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," adding "AB 316 undermines California’s law enforcement and safety officials as they seek to regulate and conduct oversight over life-saving autonomous trucks. We encourage Governor Newsom and the State Senate to reject AB 316 so Californians will benefit from the safety and supply chain benefits of autonomous trucks.”

In April, more than 55 business organizations and companies interested in AV trucks signed a letter for the record opposing AB 316, with a roll of co-signers that include Institute for Safer Trucking, CalChamber, California Small Business Association, US Xpress (CCJ Top 250, No. 19), California Manufacturers & Technology Association, California Hispanic Chamber, San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, and state-based AV companies.

Assembly passage of AB 316 comes as the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) is considering a regulatory framework that would allow for autonomous vehicles in excess of 10,000 pounds to hit the road, possibly by next year, without consent from the legislature. 

The bipartisan bill, first introduced in January, is authored by California Assembly Members Cecilia Aguiar-Curry (D-Winters), Asm. Laura Friedman (D-Glendale), Asm. Tom Lackey (R-Palmdale), and Asm. Ash Kalra (D-San Jose).

"I am thrilled that over 60 of my Assembly colleagues supported AB 316 on the floor today. 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," said Aguiar-Curry. "We will continue to fight to protect our expert trucking workforce. We will continue to fight to protect the traveling public. The road ahead will not be easy and we'll need every working Californian to join the fight to have this bill become law this year."

The bill has strong support outside the state capital too, namely among the Teamsters union and its members. 

"California highways are an unpredictable place, but as a Teamster truck driver of 13 years, I'm trained to expect the unexpected. 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," said Fernando Reyes, a commercial driver and Teamsters Local 350 member. "My truck weighs well over 10,000 pounds. 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."

A March 2023 study from the American Automobile Association (AAA) found that nearly 70% of Americans are afraid of fully self-driving cars, a significant increase from previous years. Similarly, in April 2023, more than 70% of Texas residents reported that they would be scared to share the road with a driverless semi-truck or tractor-trailer.

California is home to more than a half-dozen developers of autonomous technologies, yet isn't one of the 22 states that allow the testing of driverless vehicles on the road with a gross weight over 10,000 pounds, and the state's regulations currently have California mostly sitting on the sidelines as autonomous tech companies increasingly forge freight-hauling partnerships and clear safety hurdles on a path to commercial viability. 

Jason Cannon has written about trucking and transportation for more than a decade and serves as Chief Editor of Commercial Carrier Journal. A Class A CDL holder, Jason is a graduate of the Porsche Sport Driving School, an honorary Duckmaster at The Peabody in Memphis, Tennessee, and a purple belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu. Reach him at jasoncannon@randallreilly.com.