Self-driving truck companies face a potential roadblock in California

After years of pressure from the autonomous vehicle industry, The California Department of Motor Vehicles is on the verge of allowing companies to test and deploy self-driving trucks on public roads. 

Now, a new speed bump has emerged.

California Assembly Member Cecilia Aguiar-Curry introduced in late January a bill that would require a trained human safety operator to be present any time a heavy-duty autonomous vehicle operates on public roads in the state. 

Companies still use human safety operators when testing autonomous trucks on public roads in other states. (Remember, California currently prohibits the practice altogether.) But the end goal is to remove those human drivers.

The proposed AB 316 bill has injected some uncertainty into those plans. What AV companies and industry stakeholders want to know now is: Will this bill spell the end of the autonomous trucking industry in the sunshine state?

The answer is complicated.

What the proposed bill means for AV regulators

There’s no indication that the introduction of AB 316 will affect the DMV’s rule-making process in the short term. The bill was introduced just as the DMV was holding a public workshop to discuss the regulatory considerations of autonomous vehicles weighing more than 10,001 pounds. If Gov. Gavin Newsom signs the proposed AB 316 bill into law, it wouldn’t take effect until around January 1, 2024, according to the California Legislature’s timeline. 

But the bill, if passed, would limit the DMV’s authority to regulate AVs, power the agency has held since 2012. 

The DMV will still regulate the testing and deployment of automated vehicles. However, legislators who co-authored the bill agreed the DMV’s authority to grant permission to test and deploy these technologies must include a qualified person able to respond to an emergency in the cab of the truck for the foreseeable future.

What it means for AV companies

The bill is written as a preventative measure. The co-authors anticipate the DMV will soon lift its current ban on testing and deploying autonomous vehicles over 10,001 pounds. The DMV recently held a public workshop to discuss regulatory considerations for self-driving trucks. The legislation, if passed, would require those vehicles to always have a safety operator behind the wheel, thus preventing the testing of driverless trucks as they were intended to be used.

It could also complicate future interstate freight runs.

Today, most AV companies developing autonomous trucks have operations in Florida, Texas and Arizona. Testing on interstates between the states of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona are a regular occurrence.

The prize is adding California. That would allow trucks to carry freight between the active ports in California and Texas — and eventually beyond. A law that requires a human driver behind the wheel would force companies to adjust or avoid the state altogether.

That’s already happening to some degree. Kodiak Robotics, for example, last year completed a coast-to-coast commercial run between Florida, Texas and California for 10 Roads Express with a human safety operator behind the wheel. When the trucks got to California, the autonomous system switched to ADAS, which isn’t regulated by the state.

That adjustment doesn’t mean much now since Kodiak, and virtually every other autonomous trucking company, has yet to pull out the human safety operator. Once these companies are ready to deploy commercial operations, removing the human will be essential to bringing down the cost of operations.

“This is not a situation where it’s going to take an enormous legislative effort to turn it off unless the members of the legislature don’t agree that it’s time to allow fully driverless cars,” Aguiar-Curry told TechCrunch. “We are supportive of the governor and the efforts he wants to make to have more efficiency in goods movement, but I feel like it’s my responsibility as a legislator, and on behalf of my constituents, to say fully driverless trucking should not happen until we are all convinced that a driverless vehicle is truly safe.”

In other words, Aquiar-Curry and the other co-authors of the bill aren’t saying they never want to see driver-out operations in California. New legislation can be drafted to either relax or eliminate the safety operator requirement in the future, but only once AV companies convince the legislature of the safety of their vehicles. 

Some members of the AV community are skeptical of the Legislature’s benchmark for AV safety.

An AV employee who specializes in policy told TechCrunch he thinks the Legislature “is still learning about this technology.” A polite way of saying legislators aren’t keyed up enough on the nuances of self-driving tech to regulate it.

And that employee might have a point.

A source within the Legislature who is familiar with the matter admitted that Aguiar-Curry’s office had not worked closely with the autonomous technology industry when drafting the bill but did speak extensively to the California Trucking Association and agricultural shippers.

Supporters of the bill also appear to be confused by the different levels of autonomy.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters sent TechCrunch a fact sheet with many arguments in favor of the legislation. Among the arguments were several citations of various crashes, many of them fatal, involving AVs. Those crashes mainly involved Teslas and other passenger car vehicles with advanced driver assistance systems, not fully autonomous systems that AV companies are working on.

AV companies also point to the fact that these accidents are occurring even with a driver behind the wheel. 

The Teamsters and other bill advocates believe the Legislature should be involved in the rule-making around autonomous vehicles, but they have to admit the DMV hasn’t exactly been a slouch.

California has some of the toughest regulations for autonomous vehicle testing and deployment in the country, and the DMV, combined with the California Public Utilities Commission, has a lengthy and measured process to allow AVs to test on public roads even with a safety driver.

Members of the AV industry say there’s no reason to think the agency wouldn’t come to the regulation of heavy-duty AVs with the same rigor.