Polarizing is shaping up to be the defining word of this era. Among the most divisive subjects is the advent of new technologies upending the automotive industry.
While much of that discourse has revolved around electric vehicles, another tech-fueled debate is gathering steam in California – the future of autonomous vehicles.
Depending on who’s asked, the technology is either an important development for the Golden State’s tech industry and the role those companies will play in the future of transportation or an assault on the working class.
While some cities, such as San Francisco, are fully embracing self-driving vehicles, state legislatures in Sacramento are doing the opposite – pushing Bill AB 316 forward to make sure there’s always a human behind the wheel of a semi-truck, even if they aren’t driving it.
A Battle for Safety or Labor?
Some people don’t feel safe seeing driverless vehicles on the road, especially ones as powerful as semi-trucks.
There’s been extensive testing for autonomous driving technology over the past few years. Zero fatalities were reported during the 620,000-plus miles self-driving trucks logged from 2021 to 2022. That zero-fatality streak extends to an additional 5.1 million miles these autonomous trucks covered while a human was behind the wheel monitoring them.
So, with such a stellar safety record – why is California’s Senate aggressively moving forward with Bill AB 316 to ensure these self-driving trucks always have safety drivers?
Combing the Bill’s language and comparing it with current California law yields some potential insight.
Much of what Bill AB 316 stipulates aligns with how California already governs self-driving vehicle usage. The new specification the Bill adds regards the transportation of people and products by autonomous vehicles with Gross Vehicle Weights of 10,000 pounds or more.
Bill AB 316 is designed to protect transportation jobs. The word “protect” is not used by the opposition to AB 316, who firmly believe what it’s doing is pandering to labor unions.
Though it quickly passed through the Golden State’s Senate with a majority vote of 36 to 2, Governor Gavin Newsom’s administration doesn’t feel so sunny about it.
Reportedly, the Newsom administration sent a letter to Assemblymember Aguiar-Curry, AB 316’s architect, bemoaning the Bill’s “inflexible” regulation of the state’s blooming “innovation economy.”
Further opposition to AB 316 comes from the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association (AVIA), which argues this will hinder the state’s economic growth and “expert regulators” ability to oversee future autonomous vehicle developments.
In stark opposition to those sentiments is Teamsters Council Joint 42 President Chris Griswold, who has stated that AB 316’s primary resistance is from people who are “out-of-touch” with the realities of working-class Californians. Approximately 200,000 Golden State residents currently work as truck drivers.
Also sympathetic to preserving those 200,000 jobs is California’s Labor Federation executive secretary-treasurer, Lorena Gonzalez, who described the real issue in this matter as being “the classist policies” of tech company billionaires not concerned with the problems facing “real workers.”
Gonzalez also noted the strong support AB 316 has received from both sides of the aisle because public safety and fair labor practices are issues anyone can stand behind.
Newsom’s Next Move Remains a Mystery.
The state legislature’s declarative stance on this issue poses a dilemma for the typically tech-friendly Governor Newsom. His administration has already expressed disagreement, in line with AB 316’s proponents, over the Bill’s intentions.
However, now that it has passed, will he be able to hold off on signing it into law, or will he be forced to cave into pressure from fellow politicians?