A bill to require driverless trucks to have a driver in the vehicle moved closer to a crucial Assembly Communications and Conveyance Committee this week, but it wasn’t just a safety bill – labor unions are backing the bill in anticipation of a close vote.
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.
“You don’t create a safer environment if you have a 10,000-pound vehicle out there without a human safety net,” noted California Labor Federation leader and former Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who previously authored the independent contractor reclassification law AB 5, which truckers themselves had adamantly opposed.
Teamsters Joint Council 42 President Randy Cammack added that “Statewide support for AB 316 is essential as California considers the increased use of autonomous vehicles on our roads. Representing thousands of truck drivers across the state, the Teamsters will continue to fight for our members’ good jobs and safety on the roads, as well as the safety of all California drivers. The public should not be treated as a lab rat for big corporations to test their technology. Californians deserve a safety-first approach, and this bill would do just that.”
However, many opposing legislators and auto industry leaders have said that driverless trucks will actually improve safety and will help significantly fill in the 78,000 open trucker position gap that has been plaguing the industry for years.
“Contrary to misconceptions, autonomous trucks will enhance safety on California’s roads while supporting existing jobs and creating new ones,” noted Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association executive director Jeff Farrah.
Support for, opposition against AB 316
Last month, AB 316 was rereferred from the Assembly Transportation Committee to the Assembly Communications and Conveyance Committee, with many now anticipating the first major Committee vote. While supporters note that members of both parties are for the bill, especially with thousands of truckers jobs being on the line in the coming years as auto-driving vehicle technology improves, many detractors noted that the unions showed their hands and proved that the bill is really about saving union membership rather than safety or other concerns.
“Look at those statements union leaders said,” explained Pat Martin, an automotive consultant, to the Globe on Thursday. “They’re saying the quiet part out loud. While safety and keeping jobs might be parts of it, the big part is that unions are running scared of automation. It’s not regulations or union busters or big box stores or anything like that that has cut union jobs the most. Automation has.”
“And having autonomous robots drive trucks would be a huge money saver for companies. So the writing is on the wall. This bill is there to keep union jobs intact rather than go with progress. You have to remember, we aren’t rushing driverless cars. We’ve been testing these for years and years. For many, it will be an option soon. But we also didn’t just throw them on the road. These are being tested every day.”
“So safety isn’t an issue. Job loss is, but if the automated trucks are rolled out at a simple rate of replacement of drivers as they retire, that shouldn’t be an issue. The only real issue is that union membership for truckers will spiral down as a result. That’s why they are so opposed. You require trucks to still have a driver regardless, all those union jobs are saved at the expense of pretty much everyone else, as it will lead to higher costs for everything else from shipping costs to health care benefits.”
AB 316 is expected to be heard in the Assembly Communications and Conveyance Committee soon.
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