California should exercise caution on self-driving trucks

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The recent San Francisco experiment involving self-driving taxis shows the risk posed by putting self-driving trucks on California roads and highways. The thought of a fully loaded semi barreling down a busy highway without a driver on board raises legitimate concerns. But a bill passed by the state Legislature goes too far in slowing efforts to implement the new technology.

Gov. Gavin Newsom should veto AB 316, which would ban self-driving trucks weighing more than 10,000 pounds from operating on public roads without a human driver until 2029. The Legislature should instead designate the state Department of Motor Vehicles and other stage agencies with the necessary expertise to determine when self-driving trucks are safe to transport products in California.

Under the legislation, the DMV would not be able to issue permits for self-driving trucks until after five years of testing or Jan. 2020, whichever comes later. That means the earliest California could allow autonomous trucks to operate without a human driver would be 2030.

Beyond the safety issue, the labor-dominated Legislature is concerned about the potential for self-driving trucks replacing driving jobs. Teamsters officials say there are about 200,000 commercial truck drivers in California. What the labor leaders don’t say is how many jobs the autonomous driving industry will create.  A 2022 study released by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group found that the impact of automated trucking in California would increase the state’s economy by upwards of $6.5 billion or more and that, over the long haul, would not prompt mass driver layoffs.

The Associated Press reports that a San Diego-based self-driving truck company, TuSimple, partnered with the U.S. Postal Service this spring to test autonomous technology on the 1,000-mile route between Phoenix and Dallas. The two-week pilot program had a driver and engineer on board for five test runs, which were completed without incident. TuSimple officials say they have 15 contracts with shipping companies in Arizona.

The DMV also notes that testing of self-driving vehicles since 2014 over nearly 20 million miles has yet to lead to any fatalities. But that doesn’t mean self-driving trucks should be granted permits to operate.

On Aug. 10, the California Public Utilities Commission ignored non-fatality safety concerns and voted to allow Cruise and Waymo to expand their robotaxi services to 24 hours a day throughout San Francisco.

The next day, 10 robotaxis abruptly stopped and jammed traffic for 15 minutes in the city’s popular North Beach neighborhood. Then, on Aug. 17,  a driverless Cruise vehicle collided with a fire truck in a San Francisco intersection, injuring a passenger. It’s clear that substantially more testing is necessary before turning loose autonomous vehicles in California.

Self-driving trucks pose considerably more risk than cars. The governor, the Legislature and state agencies should take a cautious approach to allowing them on the road while working to promote the innovative technology.

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