Legislation introduced in California would prohibit the testing or commercial operation of self-driving big rigs without a human driver. It should be withdrawn or defeated.
California regulations already restrict testing of self-driving technology in such large vehicles. The passage of the legislation would make those restrictions permanent, regardless of any technological progress.
On the surface, California Assembly Bill 316 would seem a sensible safety regulation for a technology that has proved to be expensive, difficult to develop and not necessarily ready for deployment on the nation's highways.
But codifying the restriction permanently into law would have a darker outcome: to obstruct development of a potentially lifesaving and infrastructure-extending technology in the name of saving some high-paying, blue-collar occupations that don't require a college degree.
Let us be clear: We remain highly dubious of the safety claims of those seeking to sell underdeveloped automated driving technologies for light or heavy-duty vehicles. Tesla's overhyped marketing claims for its "Full Self-Driving" system border on criminal malfeasance. Those pushing undercooked solutions are motivated to speed up their return on a massive investment in attempting to automate what is an incredibly complex task.
Yet the vision of fully autonomous vehicle operation remains a technological challenge worth trying to solve, especially for those in the logistics industries. There are 38.9 million trucks registered in the United States, according to the American Trucking Associations, and traffic deaths involving large trucks — currently being operated exclusively by human beings — jumped a disproportionate 17 percent year over year in 2021. An average of 5,000 people per year are killed in collisions involving large trucks. Clearly, driving an over-the-road semi professionally remains a dangerous, largely tedious occupation, but one that still requires special skills to do well and safely.
Traffic safety must always be Job 1 in the continued development of autonomous driving technologies for vehicles of all sizes. When those technologies satisfactorily demonstrate that mission is accomplished, only then can human safety drivers be removed. But no law passed now should try to stop tomorrow's technological advancements.