Gov. Gavin Newsom is on the spot. The California Senate passed a bill Monday mandating human drivers behind the wheel of autonomous trucks on state highways for at least the next five years. The Legislature says it’s concerned about safety. The governor’s office says it’s concerned about innovation.
It’s now up to Newsom to veto the bill or sign it. All indications point to veto. Go-Biz, the governor’s California business development office, wrote a letter to the bill’s sponsor that argues passage of the bill would hamper the state’s competitiveness, limit supply-chain innovation and undermine existing oversight.
The legislation, Assembly Bill 316, passed the Senate on a 36-2 vote. In essence, it would require driverless trucks, weighing from 10,000 pounds to big rigs weighing 80,000 pounds, to have a human safety driver on board. The requirement would remain in place for at least five years, but proponents say the Legislature could remove that requirement earlier if it’s reasonably confident about vehicle safety.
The bill was sponsored by Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry (D-Winters). “There is a reason why local elected and public safety officials, local firefighters and police officers, and the state’s highway patrol officers all support AB 316. They, and we, want a collaborative, truly public process between the Legislature, local officials and the executive branch in making these decisions that impact the safety of millions of California travelers and hundreds of thousands of jobs,” she said after the vote Monday.
The two ‘no’ votes came from Sens. Brian Dahle (R-Bieber) and Steve Glazer (D-Orinda). Glazer said requiring human drivers in experimental robot trucks was equivalent to demanding that people use typewriters.
Because the Teamsters trucker union is a big backer of the bill, opponents say the issue is really about job loss. Proponents say that too is a concern, but the key is making sure massive semi-trucks can operate safely on state highways.
The safety issue has risen to the fore after San Francisco police officers and the city’s fire chief complained in August that driverless taxis deployed by Cruise and Waymo persisently impede emergency vehicles and first responders. Those companies sought and won approval Aug. 10 for rapid expansion of their commercial operations in the city from the California Public Utilities Commission. All five members of the commission are Newsom appointees.
One member, John Reynolds, was the top attorney at Cruise before he joined the CPUC. He cast his vote, which is legal under current state law, but said he saw no conflict of interest.
The Newsom administration has also been under constant fire for the way the California Department of Motor Vehicles is regulating driverless car safety. It allows Tesla to test its driverless car technology — dubbed Full-Self Driving — on public streets, but says because drivers are instructed to pay attention, the cars aren’t really driverless.
The DMV has said it is investigating whether the company is violating DMV rules that bar a company from marketing autonomous technology when it does not allow full self driving. The investigation has been ongoing for two and a half years.
Several legislators said during debate that they don’t trust the DMV’s oversight of robot vehicle public safety.
Newsom, a self described pal of Elon Musk who appears to be positioning himself to run for president should Joe Biden drop out, has a lot riding on whether his decision to prioritize autonomous vehicle innovation over public safety comes back to bite him.