Opinion: Newsom Should Veto AB 316 for California to Remain A Leader in Development of Autonomous Trucks

This op-ed originally appeared in the Sacramento Business Journal on September 22, 2023.

By Dr. Allanté Whitmore, Director of the Autonomous Vehicles Initiative at SAFE

A bill that threatens to dramatically slow—and potentially halt—nearly a decade of innovation in autonomous trucking is near passage in the California Senate. Its ramifications extend far beyond California and the trucking industry.

AB 316, which could pass this month, would significantly hinder the deployment of autonomous heavy-duty trucks by requiring those vehicles to have human drivers behind the wheel even after passing rigorous safety testing, certification, and ongoing inspections by California’s Department of Motor Vehicles.

Overall, requiring human drivers to be present during testing is reasonable, but codifying this requirement for every vehicle deployed will hobble the sector, losing out on the significant environmental and safety benefits that large-scale deployment of autonomous trucking promises to bring. Furthermore, many AVs do not even accommodate a human driver—these types of regulations can push such applications out of the U.S. market entirely.

At SAFE—a nonpartisan nonprofit focused on accelerating real-world deployment of secure, resilient, and sustainable transportation and energy solutions—we see autonomous trucks as an essential technology to address the trucking sector’s longstanding emissions and safety challenges.

Autonomous trucks can be designed and operated in ways that significantly reduce oil consumption when they do not require human drivers. SAFE modeling estimates that scaled deployment of autonomous trucks in the U.S. could save more than 20 billion cumulative gallons of diesel by 2050 in the heavy-duty freight sector. Furthermore, the trucking industry faces a severe staffing shortage: approximately 70,000 long-haul trucking jobs are unfilled nationally due to the grueling hours, time away from home, and physical demands of the work.

Currently, despite only accounting for four percent of vehicles on the road, long-haul trucks account for roughly 13 percent of total U.S. gas consumption. They also move more than 70 percent of all freight in the United States, about $725 billion annually. That’s everything from the furniture in our homes to the groceries on our shelves to vital medicines and hospital equipment. It is hard to overstate how fundamental long-haul trucking is to our economy and standards of living. However, the noise and air pollution it generates is also concentrated in lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color, burdening vulnerable populations with these unfortunate externalities.

As California rightly moves to slash greenhouse gas emissions and toxic air pollution, autonomous vehicle technology can help to meet the state’s ambitious goals without slowing the vital flow of goods that long-haul trucks are responsible for moving.

California is a policy leader that often sets the agenda for the rest of the country: Sacramento’s precedents ripple to other states and can have a chilling effect on a still-nascent industry. Furthermore, a requirement like this in California alone or a smattering of other states could significantly stifle interstate commerce, creating a virtual wall for autonomous trucks bringing goods from other states.

There are even global considerations. While the U.S. currently leads the world in autonomous innovation, competitors like China are not far behind. Slowing down our progress would cede our competitive advantage. We have seen this happen with other recent innovations, like the development of lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries, which revolutionized the electric vehicle industry. While initially developed in the United States, China has since cornered the market on the scaled manufacturing of these batteries. Let’s not let autonomous vehicles be another example in which the U.S. falls behind on deployment of a technology that it created.

The truth is that California is a leader in autonomous vehicle technology because its regulatory approach over the past decades has been measured in balancing innovation and safety. State regulators, working closely with private sector actors, have given industry the freedom to innovate while putting important safety standards in place.

If this bill passes and Governor Newsom signs it into law, California will cease to be a model for how to innovate and instead will stall a nascent industry that promises to make roads safer, increase efficiency, and reduce the root causes of climate change.

Dr. Whitmore holds a Ph.D. in autonomous vehicle policy from Carnegie Mellon University and is Director of SAFE’s AV Initiative.