Autonomy and Road Safety: California Must Choose the Road to Travel

By Tara Andringa, the Orange County Register

For the past two decades, California has been the global leader in autonomous vehicle technology, revolutionizing how we transport people and goods. The state has developed a robust system for overseeing the development, testing, and deployment of highly automated vehicles; the California Department of Motor Vehicles, which regulates the safety of this technology, has issued permits to 40 manufacturers through the most developed AV regulatory process of any state.

Autonomous vehicles can make California’s roads safer, reduce emissions, and bolster the state’s economy through the creation of new jobs. AVs have created thousands of jobs for people of all education and skill levels, and manufacturers are creating pathways to high-tech jobs that do not require four-year degrees. The autonomous trucking sector alone could increase the state’s economic activity by $7.9 billion in 2019 gross domestic product (GDP), according to a study from the Silicon Valley Leadership Group Foundation.

As AV technology matures, we are at a crossroads of determining how we can ensure the societal potential that the technology offers — such as greater road safety and new transportation options for people who can’t drive a car — while making sure we are ensuring that we are introducing these new technologies in a thoughtful, deliberate and safe manner.

The California Senate is considering legislation this week, which passed the Assembly recently, that would prohibit the operation of driverless trucks in the state by requiring every autonomous truck to also have a human driver inside. Sponsors of the bill argue that it is about improving road safety — but opponents point out that banning new safety technologies will reinforce the status quo of deaths on our highways and would overturn years of progress by California’s top safety regulators overseeing the safe integration of driverless trucks.

Advancing road safety in California

Every year, we see too many tragic injuries and deaths on our roads, too much pollution, and too much time wasted in gridlock. At the root of these challenges are human errors and choices: reckless, intoxicated, and distracted driving behaviors that lead to crashes, congestion, and hours spent idling in traffic.

And these trends are headed in the wrong direction: Approximately 4,407 Californians lost their lives in traffic crashes in 2022 — a 3% increase over the previous year. The size and weight of trucks make them particularly prone to causing severe crashes; according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the United States saw a 27 percent increase in fatalities in fatal crashes involving large trucks in 2020 — and 83% of those were not occupants of the truck.

The underlying technology of autonomous trucks has the potential to improve road safety for all California road users. By leveraging advanced sensors, artificial intelligence, and sophisticated algorithms, autonomous trucks are capable of detecting potential hazards, analyzing complex road conditions, and responding with unmatched speed and precision.

Unlike human drivers, autonomous trucks are not subject to fatigue, distraction, or impairment, ensuring constant attentiveness that prohibits crashes caused by human error.

Striking the balance

California’s highway safety experts have developed a framework that requires intensive testing, certification, and ongoing evaluation of autonomous trucks.

The DMV collaborates with industry stakeholders, researchers, and policymakers to develop this framework, addressing safety concerns while still allowing for the responsible and controlled deployment of autonomous trucks.

Assembly Bill 316 would close the door to this regulatory framework developed by the state’s top safety experts and institute a blanket prohibition on autonomous trucks, regardless of their safety records.

There remains a great deal of public skepticism about automated vehicles. My organization, Partners for Automated Vehicle Education, exists to foster fact-based conversations that acknowledge the deep uncertainty new technologies can bring — and the benefits in safety and mobility these technologies promise.

As Californians consider how best to approach autonomous trucking, they should recognize another risk — the risk of maintaining a status quote that kills the equivalent of more than one packed airliner full of passengers every week.