California has a reputation for innovation. After all, Silicon Valley is where the first Apple computer was built and it was the University of California Los Angeles whose ARPANET project laid the ground work for todays internet (with a little help from Al Gore ;0). In fact, California and its elected officials are so comfortable with innovation that they have, on more than one occasion, finalized rules requiring the adoption of technologies that hadn’t yet been invented (CARB, we’re looking at you…).
California was one of the first states to pass legislation explicitly authorizing the testing of autonomous vehicles, including commercial motor vehicles, on public roads. But the tides may be turning in California. Last month saw a contentious 6-hour hearing in San Francisco where the public utilities commission approved a significant expansion of its driverless taxi program over the loud objection of neighbors and first responders complaining AVs were clogging up streets. Earlier this month, the California Senate approved, on a vote of 36-2, a bill that requires any self-driving, heavy-duty vehicle that operates on public roads in the state to have a trained human safety driver behind the wheel until at least 2031.
The legislation, Assembly Bill 316, was approved in the lower chamber by equally impressive margins (69-4). Of course, the passage of this bill put Governor Newsome in a tough position. On one hand, he has a history of strong support of tech companies as the former mayor of San Francisco. On the other, he’s a Democratic Governor generally aligned with the interest of workers unions, who have come out as strong supporters of AB 316 because of concerns about job loss that could result from widespread deployment of driverless trucks. Governor Newsome, an early opponent of the bill, vetoed the bill despite overwhelming support in the legislature. While an override vote seems plausible, it’s unlikely given California’s history of deference to gubernatorial vetoes.
What does this all mean for trucking? Here’s a clue: it’s not about California. The California experience shows us that the path to autonomous trucking is not just technological; it’s political. And, in politics, the opinion of the electorate matters. Whenever new legislation is introduced or new rules are created, it usually reflects citizens’ opinions.
We must engage with, and work to shape public opinionI if we believe the safety and environmental improvements are worth the transition to autonomous vehicles. The latest AAA Annual Automated Vehicle Survey shows we’re losing this battle. Of those surveyed this year, 68% said they are afraid of the technology (an increase from 55% last year) and only 9% trust the tech (a decrease from 15% last year).
If those historically supportive of technological innovation are newly reticent, we need to pay attention. AV suppliers will develop the tech. We need to help shape public opinion. At the end of the day, removing what is traditionally the leading cause of vehicle crashes, the human driver, can lead to significant safety gains. To be sure, AVs won’t work in every circumstance, and markets and use cases will have a big influence on where they’re ultimately adopted. But the message the world needs to embrace is that safety will improve.