California's Senate has passed a bill that would require the presence of a human safety operator whenever a self-driving truck is operating on public roads within the state. In other words, it's a ban on self-driving trucks.
But there's one big catch. The bill will need to be signed by Governor Gavin Newsom before it goes into effect, and he's more than likely to reject it.
The cases for and against the driverless truck ban are worth considering, since they sum up a lot of the arguments that surround the rise of artificial intelligence across plenty of other industries.
The Case for Driverless Trucks
The tech-positive argument for why we should embrace the rise of driverless vehicles is likely familar to anyone inside the wide-sweeping orbit of the larger tech industry.
Restricting the rise and disrupting force of a new technology undermines natural innovation, the argument goes, ultimately dinging the competitive tech economy that defines much of what makes California famous.
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The bill, AB 316, passed the Senate floor with 36 votes in favor and just two votes against. But Newsom's tech-friendly reputation is a big part of why experts predict he'll reject the bill to keep on course for a driverless future.
The Case for Banning Driverless Trucks
The bill's proponents argue that safety will fall by the roadside if driverless trucks are allowed to operate with no human supervision.
Plus, cutting truck drivers out of their job security may further dent the US economy, since there are an estimated 3.5 million truck drivers currently employed in the US. (This argument is reminiscent of a lot of the conversations surrounding AI, which can be used as a threat to ensure labor markets stay weak since employees fear AI replacement.)
Finally, trucking companies might have the wrong motives for rolling out driverless vehicles:
“AV companies have lost billions of dollars in the self-driving vehicle space over the last few years and are now trying to appease their investors by imposing unsafe, inadequate products on the public,” said Jason Rabinowitz, president of Teamsters Joint Council 7, in a statement covered by TechCrunch. “These corporate elites have no regard whatsoever for the safety or prosperity of the communities they will put in harm’s way. Gov. Newsom needs to do right by Californians — not these companies — immediately.”
The trucking industry already has plenty to complain about, from rising fuel costs to supply chain disruptions that have made vehicle replacements even more of a slog than normal. Even if this bill is vetoed — which, again, seems likely — most commercial fleets won't have the resources to immediately adapt a host of driverless trucks.
Granted, Safety Should Probably Come First for the Trucking Industry
One pretty compelling argument for regulation is that driverless vehicles have yet to be perfected, and this is an industry in which mistakes can be deadly.
We already regulate truckers' hours of service with the ELD mandate, alongside tracking emissions and fuel taxes. When it comes to letting 4,000 pounds of metal drive itself around at 60 miles per hour down a public freeway, intense safety precautions just make sense.
It's also true that the kinks have yet to be worked out for AI far beyond the trucking industry — and we don't yet have firm evidence that they ever will be. Artificial intelligence “hallucinations” can result in confident falsehoods from any generative AI on the market, and even the big names like ChatGPT are dealing with product-market fit concerns that could potentially tank them.
Driverless cars have been on the horizon since the first successful pilot took place in 1995. Maybe if we wait another 28 years, the technology will work perfectly.