California’s Economy Could Benefit From Autonomous Trucking Amid Inflation, Labor Shortages

By Jeff Farrah, Orange County Register

Growing up in California, I witnessed how the state’s innovative spirit and diverse economy made for a better life. Last summer the Port of Los Angeles lost its crown as the busiest port in North America for the first time in 22 years, taking second place to the Port of New York and New Jersey. California has an opportunity to regain its supply chain leadership as policymakers convene stakeholders to discuss how autonomous trucks — which would deliver essential goods and materials across the state — can be a big part of the solution for supporting the shipping industry and its jobs.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) recently took the first step forward to evaluate how autonomous trucks can be deployed in California. It is imperative this process move forward with a formal rulemaking authorizing the testing and deployment of autonomous trucks to provide greater supply chain resiliency for the state, fill in labor shortage’s gaps and help to bring down prices while supporting new jobs and investing in tomorrow’s workforce.

We may not see long lines of container ships waiting offshore anymore, but importers have shifted their goods away from the West Coast to East Coast ports, which are surging ahead in container import volumes. This is an alarming trend, as the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach currently support 1.4 million Californian jobs, and thousands of these jobs are endangered if cargo volumes do not return.

Even when goods come in through California, many sit in warehouses waiting for transport to their destination. One reason for this is the 78,000 truck driver shortage, despite higher pay and aggressive recruiting. Between expected freight growth and more retirements in an aging trucking workforce, the shortage could reach 160,000 by 2031. The numbers simply don’t add up — the amount of truck drivers can’t keep up with the economy’s demands.

Thankfully, homegrown California innovation can help solve this problem. Autonomous trucks would work hand-in-hand with the trucking and shipping workforce to boost California’s supply chain. One study confirmed that autonomous long-haul trucks would increase economic output in the Golden State by upwards of $6.5 billion and add 2,400 jobs without mass layoffs. The existing driver shortage is especially severe in the long-haul sector where jobs involve long and stressful days away from families.

Autonomous trucks need many workers to support the industry: technicians, maintenance staff, engineers, remote support operators and more. Across the country, the U.S. Department of Transportation projected that autonomous trucks would raise wages for all workers and spur $111 billion in investment across all sectors.

Autonomous trucks’ environmental benefits can also help cut emissions. The technology optimizes driving behavior, reducing fuel consumption by at least 10% with better speed management, smoother handling and less idling. Autonomous trucks can also avoid crowded cities at rush hour and reduce congestion for all vehicles.

Many of the leaders in autonomous trucking are based right here in California. Yet current state regulations prohibit autonomous trucks from commercializing within the state. Though their employees live and work in California neighborhoods, the state’s businesses and consumers are unable to see any of the technology’s efficiencies, economic opportunities or environmental benefits. In the meantime, import volumes will continue to dwindle as California risks losing its leadership status in innovation and shipping

Just as California has already been superseded by East Coast ports, neighboring states like Arizona, New Mexico and Texas already have autonomous freight technology in action and are producing commercial partnerships. While California has prohibited the commercialization of autonomous trucks, other states across the country have passed legislation and instituted regulations that promote the technology and recognize the promise presented. Until a rulemaking from California regulators, the Golden State is getting left further and further behind.

Because the growth of autonomous trucks will be incremental, it is vital for industry, government and labor to work together in preparing tomorrow’s workforce for this shift. The autonomous trucking industry believes that this rulemaking should be pursued in tandem with efforts to understand transitional needs for the workforce. There are opportunities to expand training and certification programs, along with opening up dialogues between different groups, and the AV industry is dedicated to being a constructive voice in these discussions.

Californians can’t be complacent in losing out on freight and cargo to other parts of the country.

Autonomous trucks provide innovative solutions to the state’s inflation, supply chain, and labor shortage challenges.

It’s time for policymakers, workers, and industry to move forward together on the promise of autonomous vehicles in parallel with promoting California’s workforce.

A native of Torrance, Jeff Farrah is executive director of the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association.