Heavy-Duty Self-Driving Trucks Face Uphill Battle In California

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Many argue that trained drivers still need to be behind the wheel of autonomous trucks weighing over 10,000 lbs.

California regulators are considering revoking the current ban in the state on autonomous heavy-duty trucks operating on public roads, but several parties are pushing hard for legislation that requires a safety driver to be in the cab of any autonomous vehicle weighing more than 10,000 pounds.

Specifically, the California Labor Federation and several Teamsters locals pointed to safety concerns and job losses if heavy-duty autonomous trucks are allowed on Californian roads without a driver, as per Automotive News.

Both points seem valid, as we've already seen the chaos that can unfold when a small autonomous hatchback like the Chevrolet Bolt EV doesn't perform as expected; those hazards increase in severity with a large, heavy-duty truck. Besides, it seems premature to allow autonomous trucks on our roads in light of the fact that Level 3 semi-autonomous technology has only just begun to make its way into the States for normal light vehicles.


"If we are going to roll out this technology, then it should be done by legislature, not by a regulatory agency," said Jason Rabinowitz, Teamsters Joint Council 7 president. "It should be well thought out. Protection of our economy should be the No. 1 concern, not the profits of these corporations that are pushing this technology, trying to make us move too fast."

For truck drivers, the possibility of heavy-duty autonomous trucks being allowed in California is, understandably, a worry. "We also cannot overlook the potential cuts to good jobs and how these jobs support the livelihoods of so many California families," said Joe Garner, a Teamsters Local 315 member. "This is not just a job for me. It is life support for my family."


California Assembly member Ash Kalra attended a rally in Sacramento this week with the specific goal of protecting truck drivers' jobs, and said that if a truck broke down on the side of the road, he'd want a trained driver there to be able to troubleshoot the problem and hopefully get the truck off the road safely.

Autonomous trucks are being evaluated in multiple pilot programs in America, including hauling goods in Texas over long distances. These programs still require safety drivers to be in the cab, but as early as 2024, it is the intention of some companies to have these autonomous trucks operate without any human presence.

Volvo is one automaker working on autonomous trucks, and it announced a partnership with Uber Freight late last year to get this project going for industrial-scale deliveries. The Swedish company envisions autonomous trucks eventually taking care of long-haul deliveries while simultaneously addressing the driver shortage, whereas human drivers will still be used for first-mile operations.


As technology rapidly develops, it becomes increasingly essential for the California Department of Motor Vehicles to implement rules around heavy autonomous trucks. Jeff Farrah, the executive director of the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association, said it is "imperative" for California's DMV to start rulemaking for these vehicles to allow the workforce to adapt.

"It's important to remember that it will take time for AV trucks' full potential to be reached in the Golden State, with the deployment taking place gradually over the years to fill in current and future labor shortages," he said.

Getting an autonomous truck to drive itself is one thing, but replicating a human's ability to take evasive action in an emergency is another. A company called Kodiak Robotics proved that a self-driving truck could handle a blowout safely. Still, as we know, that's just one scenario out of myriad possibilities in the real world.

For California lawmakers and industry stakeholders, autonomous trucks will likely remain a contentious issue, whether or not the existing ban on them is overturned.

Kodiak Robotics

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