Opinion: Autonomous Trucks Will Boost Safety While Cutting Costs for California Businesses

By Paul Cramer, Times of San Diego

More than 12,250 victims were killed or injured in motor vehicle crashes in my home county of Riverside in 2020. That’s not just a sobering statistic; it is a stark reminder of lost loved ones and members of our community.

Nearly 10% of California crashes involve a truck, and 1 in 3 long-haul truck drivers experience a serious crash in their career. As a small business owner, I’m concerned about our state’s unsafe roads and optimistic about the future of autonomous trucks for Riverside County and the rest of the state.

Regrettably, fearmongering and misinformation has California lawmakers considering putting the brakes on autonomous trucks in the Golden State with Assembly Bill 316. We should not preemptively ban AV trucks, but instead encourage California safety officials to put regulations and oversight in place to ensure the highest levels of safety for this new technology.

AV trucks do not get sleepy or distracted. They have 360-degree vision, seeing farther and more clearly, day or night, than human truck drivers. By removing fatal human errors, AV trucks stand to radically improve safety on our roads.

At the same time, businesses like mine are facing labor shortages, historic inflation and strangled supply chains. Rather than accept this as fate, AV trucks can pave the way for sustained prosperity and resiliency. The United States is short 80,000 truck drivers, according to the American Trucking Associations — a number set to double within the decade.

Deploying autonomous trucks can help alleviate the driver shortage by filling in the existing gaps, without replacing jobs. If the state indefinitely requires every AV truck have a human safety operator onboard, California will only be exacerbating the shortage, rather than unlocking the technology to bolster our supply chain resiliency.

Restricting autonomous trucks doesn’t just hurt the bottom lines of California businesses; every Californian is impacted when businesses and consumers don’t get essentials on time. Prices go up; shelves remain bare; items get crossed off menus. Business owners have been trying to cope with the supply chain crisis for nearly 3 years at this point.

Many autonomous truck developers are based right here in California, supporting jobs and communities in the state. Why would we turn this economic development away while nearby states like Arizona and Texas are welcoming them and securing the economic and safety benefits?

In addition to bolstering the state’s supply chain and helping to raise total economic output for all industries, autonomous trucks can also help us achieve our state’s climate goals. Autonomous trucks can help reduce fuel consumption by at least 10% due to their model driving behavior.

It’s bad enough that California’s regulators have yet to establish the safety regime to permit AV trucks to drive in the state. Right now, an autonomous truck could drive from the Port of Savannah, Ga., all the way across the country through seven states before needing to stop at the Colorado River — unable to cross into California. Yet AB 316 would prematurely skip ahead of the DMV and Highway Patrol’s regulations, permanently kneecapping this innovation’s opportunities.

California has long been an incubator of innovation. To radically improve safety, the state must harness our technological prowess and leadership to reflect today’s safety and economic realities, boosting our agriculture, manufacturing, retail and other industries throughout the state. To truly initiate the changes that Californians need, state lawmakers must unlock — not obstruct– autonomous trucks once the appropriate regulations are in place to ensure the safety of everyone.

There needs to be a start to this innovation and California needs to once again lead innovation for the rest of the country.