For years farm groups and manufacturers have tried to convince California’s workplace regulator to relax a ban on driverless tractors. Labor unions have successfully blocked every attempt. Similar debates are now at play in the Legislature over a potential ban on driverless trucks.

The controversial measure pits California’s cautious regulatory approach against tech companies—a sector that dominates the state’s economy and much of its identity. The arguments focus on safety, but the driving factor behind the bill is the fear of job losses. As in agriculture, employers counter that the industry needs such technology just to shoulder the state’s rapidly escalating compliance costs.

Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, a farmer who represents a vibrant agricultural community in the Sacramento Valley, has grown “very concerned” about the amount of truck traffic in her district and the safety ramifications of converting the farm trucks to autonomous technology.

“I'm concerned about all of [the trucks], quite frankly,” said Aguiar-Curry, during a recent Senate Transportation Committee hearing. “As long as they're going down the highway, they're a weapon.”

To steer off the perceived threat, Aguiar-Curry has introduced Assembly Bill 316 to require a human driver in autonomous trucks. Backing the bill is the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

“The only conceivable motivation for rushing forward without a monitor in the cab is to increase profits at the risk of public safety and the livelihoods of our trained expert trucking workforce,” she said.

Her legislation rides a surge of frustration in San Francisco over driverless robotaxis, after dozens of incidents when the autonomous vehicles impeded traffic or blocked first responders.

“There's absolutely no reason to believe the San Francisco experience won't be repeated in testing driverless trucks,” she said.  “Unlike San Francisco taxis, these vehicles weigh an extra 76,000 pounds, drive at significantly higher speeds and present a greater threat to the public.”

She argued the trucking industry is rushing to increase profits at the risk of public safety, with the state’s 500,000 truckers only an afterthought.

Cecilia Aguiar-CurryAsm. Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, D-Winters

“A decision of this magnitude—allowing dangerous driverless trucks on California freeways—should not be made by a bureaucratic agency like DMV that takes its cues from greedy tech corporations while disregarding the voices of truck drivers, labor and the community,” said Jason Rabinowitz, president of Teamsters Joint Council 7.

Aguiar-Curry argued the Department of Motor Vehicles has been making deals with the industry behind closed doors ahead of public regulatory hearings on the issue.

The DMV, in partnership with the California Highway Patrol, began regulating autonomous vehicles on a company-by-company basis in 2012 at the Legislature’s behest. Alex Padilla, then a state senator, authored Senate Bill 1298 to address unease about allowing cars on the road without drivers. It enabled regulators to make nuanced decisions based on the strengths and weaknesses of each application, imposing additional requirements as needed, according to Jon Ross, a partner at the prominent lobbying firm KP Public Affairs, who represents autonomous driving companies. Ross favors the format, since it allows time, resources and expertise to solicit broad public input and carefully craft safety standards. The DMV notifies the Legislature of each application and provides a 180-day wait before approval.

“In response to California passing this first-in-the-nation legislation, pioneering companies have spent billions of dollars developing that technology here for the benefit of residents here,” said Ross.

The current DMV process can take as few as three years for approval, but AB 316 would pause that for at least seven years before lawmakers can again decide if the technology is ready, he explained.

Also opposing AB 316 was Ariel Wolf, general counsel to the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association, who pressed lawmakers to include a sunset date for the provisions.

“It is a total shutdown of a multi-billion-dollar industry in California,” said Wolf. “No company can plan to operate in California without the certainty that the technology will one day operate driverless.”

The bill’s proponents rejected proposed amendments for a sunset date, arguing the state does not have enough data on driverless trucks to make a decision on a timeline. Republican Sen. Roger Niello of Fair Oaks pointed out that the bill intends to delay the rollout to allow for more safety studies but one teamster testifying in support argued autonomous trucks should never be allowed.

“People are concerned about job losses. It's been the case since the Luddites,” said Niello, who voted in favor of the bill. “And yet, overall standards of living and the economy and jobs as a total continue to climb.”

Sen. Josh Newman of Fullerton noted that the bill is about ensuring safety, but the discussion has focused on jobs. He pushed for a separate conversation on the workforce issues and “not use safety as sort of the camouflage for this.”

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A committee analysis of the bill found that the safety record of autonomous trucks “appears to be fine so far” and California’s experience with driverless cars “demonstrates that they are safe and have resulted in no major injuries.”

Sen. Brian Dahle, who runs a trucking company in Lassen County and abstained from voting on the bill, agreed that trucks should continue to have human operators for the near term. But he was worried that the conversations have involved 80,000-pound tractor trailers, when the legislation also sweeps up smaller delivery trucks as light as 10,000 pounds.

Fellow Republican Sen. Kelly Seyarto of Riverside County backed the bill despite his concerns over the trucking industry “getting hit pretty hard” with state regulations.

“They're getting pushed out. They're going where they can actually stay alive,” he said. “That's one of the reasons we have a driver shortage.”

Much of the debate struck similar chords to arguments at the standards board governing the Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal/OSHA. The board has denied two petitions for updating a labor code nearly half a century old that bars farmers from using autonomous tractors. An informational hearing in March frustrated representatives of manufacturing companies with speculation from board members about the potential for job losses, when the workshop was billed as a discussion on worker safety.

Opponents of driverless tractors raised public safety alarms by referencing accidents on urban streets with Teslas, just as AB 316 proponents equated driverless trucks with robotaxis.

On both issues, industry groups have charged that a ban on automation encourages those tech companies to invest in states that are more welcoming. According to Walt Duflock, vice president of innovation at Western Growers, speaking at the 2022 FIRA USA ag robotics conference, California is creating a competitive playing field where states like Arizona can lead in autonomous. That state, along with Texas, has also taken the lead in allowing driverless trucks.

“There is a general apprehension to embracing this technology,” Michael Miiller, director of government relations for the California Association of Winegrape Growers, told Agri-Pulse. “People are nervous, people are skeptical.”

The bigger concern, he said, is not safety, but job loss.

“They think that the driverless machines are going to replace human jobs,” he said. “We think that's just not the case.”

As with trucking, the state does not have enough drivers for tractors. The number of jobs in automation, mechanization and precision agriculture will continue to grow, while the skills can be transferred to other industries and allow for upward mobility within the company and within the industry, he explained.

In the 1970s, unions pushed back on barcode scanners at grocery stores over fears they would replace human cashiers, he said, stressing that the average cashier today wants that technology to make their jobs easier and more reliable.

Miiller hoped more stakeholders would coalesce around emerging technologies like automation, since everyone wants to maintain jobs for agricultural workers, and step away from top-down regulatory bans.

“California is an island,” he said. “We're the only place on planet Earth that has this kind of regulatory scheme around autonomous tractors.”

Yet the outcome is likely to be different for the driverless trucks debate. Unlike the tractor ban, the Newsom administration has formally expressed opposition to AB 316. That sets a steep hurdle for the bill to climb out of the Senate Appropriations Committee ahead of a key fiscal deadline on Friday.

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