A bill to require driverless trucks to have a driver in the vehicle passed the Assembly in a 69-4 vote on Wednesday, moving to the Senate.
Assembly Bill 316, authored by Assemblywoman Cecilia Aguiar-Curry (D-Winters) would prohibit the operation of an autonomous vehicle with a gross vehicle weight of 10,000 pounds or more on public roads for testing purposes, transporting goods, or transporting passengers without a human safety operator physically present in the autonomous vehicle at the time of operation.
While AB 316 was authored by Assemblywoman Aguiar-Curry, it was introduced with a bipartisan group of legislators, including Assemblymen Tom Lackey (R-Palmdale) and Ash Kalra (D-San Jose). While a few Republicans have been in favor of the bill as a way to keep jobs in rural areas, many Democrats have been in favor of the bill due to it protecting thousands of union trucking jobs and alleged safety benefits.
Adding to the mix were labor unions such as the Teamsters, who used the issue of driver safety as the main reason for passing the bill.
“California highways are an unpredictable place, but as a Teamster truck driver of 13 years, I’m trained to expect the unexpected. I know how to look out for people texting while driving, potholes in the middle of the road, and folks on the side of the highway with a flat tire. We can’t trust new technology to pick up on those things,” said Fernando Reyes, a Commercial Driver, in a Teamsters statement on Thursday. “My truck weighs well over 10,000 pounds. The thought of it barreling down the highway with no driver behind the wheel is a terrifying thought, and it isn’t safe. AB 316 is the only way forward for California.”
However, others noted that unions stood to lose thousands of jobs as the result of a future switch to driverless cars, necessitating legislative action to save them.
“A driverless truck means you don’t need that driver,” said labor consultant Jeanne Rogers to the Globe on Thursday. “That means one less union member, one less person paying dues, and less power. These guys are looking down the road right now, and they see this as a potential big loss point, so you can better believe they got the legislature to look at this bill.
“Both sides do have points though. They’re doing this to save their skins, but at the same time, there is worry about if driverless cars truly are safe.”
Despite being contentious, only a few Republicans and Democrats opposed the bill, with worry over rural trucking jobs, safety, and other issues breaking apart the usual party blocs. While AB 316 has passed all Committees in the Assembly, all of them had at least 3 members either voting no or abstaining. That trend carried over on Wednesday, with the final Assembly vote coming to 69-4 with 7 abstentions.
Assemblywoman Aguiar-Curry celebrated the passage on Wednesday, noting that “I am thrilled that over 60 of my Assembly colleagues supported AB 316 on the floor today. This joint effort with the Teamsters and Labor Federation will slow the profit-motivated drive to human-less trucking by putting the Legislature between venture capital, well-paid jobs and public safety. We will continue to fight to protect our expert trucking workforce. We will continue to fight to protect the traveling public. The road ahead will not be easy and we’ll need every working Californian to join the fight to have this bill become law this year.”
However, those who oppose the bill noted that AB 316 still has to face the Senate and two divided parties over the bill.
“This bill means a lot of things to a lot of different people,” added Rogers. “Is it going to benefit unions? Is it really for safety? How does this affect farms? Does it hurt cities? Will this make things cheaper? You usually don’t have a bill that forces lawmakers to look at it this much critically. All of this murkiness is only going to be carried over into the Senate.”
AB 316 is expected to be heard in the Senate soon.
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