California Reconsiders its Policy on Autonomous Vehicles

By Katherine Q. Zhang, Scott Scoop

A new bill introduced by the California Department of Motor Vehicles in late January requires a trained human safety operator to be present whenever a heavy-duty autonomous vehicle operates on public roads.

If the legislation authored by Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry and principally co-authored by Assemblymembers Tom Lackey and Ash Kalra is passed, self-driving trucks over 10,001 pounds will be required to have a safety driver behind the wheel. 

According to the American Trucking Association, there is a shortage of truck drivers, with 78,000 jobs available in 2022 and 160,000 expected openings by 2031 due to the aging workforce. Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are a potential solution to this problem.

“We believe AVs hold a promise to improve road safety and to offer new mobility options to millions of people,” said Aiden Ali-Sullivan, manager of state policy and government affairs for Waymo LLC.

The shortage of drivers in the trucking industry has been a significant factor motivating companies to explore AVs as a solution. According to Jonny Morris, the head of corporate affairs at Embark Trucks Inc, the cost of hiring and retaining drivers and the difficulty in finding qualified and reliable ones has put a strain on the industry for years.

“Drivers do a lot more than just drive a truck: they’re involved in a lot of record keeping and human interactions with shippers. Their expertise and improvisation are often valued for off-highway environments,” Morris said.

AVs have the potential to address this issue by reducing labor costs and allowing companies to operate trucks around the clock without the need for breaks or rest time. It also opens opportunities for new jobs.

“We anticipate that several new roles will emerge as part of operations over time, including Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) drivers, transfer hub operations, and yard operations like AV inspections and refueling,” Ali-Sullivan said.

California first allowed the operation of autonomous trucks weighing up to 10,001 pounds on state roads in 2014 with a driver, then in 2018, allowed testing without a driver.  

A group of companies, including Waymo, Aurora, TuSimple, Einride, Uber Freight, and UPS, wrote to California Governor Gavin Newsom in June 2022 to request permission to operate larger AV trucks on state roads. The letter urged the state to increase the allowed weight of AV trucks from 10,000 pounds to 80,000 pounds, arguing that this would improve efficiency and safety in the industry. 

According to Richard Steiner, the head of policy and communications at Gatik, it is important to note that AVs on public roads are still in the testing phase, and any expansion of their use would need to be carefully evaluated and regulated to ensure safety and prevent accidents. 

Expanding on what would happen once AVs are fully developed and approved for on-the-road travel, Ali-Sullivan added his vision for the future.

“We anticipate that once approved, the economic benefits to California will occur very gradually and grow over time. There will be a testing and development process for a new expansion of operations and a longer ramp-up period for us to build out infrastructure,” Ali-Sullivan said.