Ban on Driverless Autonomous Trucks Called for in California Bill

autonomous truck Gatik-Walmart feature

A Walmart autonomous truck, powered by Gatik

The California assembly voted in favor of a bill to ban driverless autonomous trucks, which now goes on to the state senate and then to the governor. It seeks a pause that would require a human onboard for at least five years while safety data is compiled, according to The Los Angeles Times and other media.

Since 35 accidents involving self-driving Tesla cars killed 19 people since 2016, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration per The Intercept, and cause many more accidents, California legislators want to tap the brakes on driverless autonomous trucks. In many instances, California is more aligned with the EU than with the rest of the U.S. when it comes to its regulatory environment.

AB 316, as the bill is designated, would require autonomous vehicle manufacturers conducting authorized testing in California to report any collision involving one of their vehicles weighing over 10,000 lbs. to the Department of Motor Vehicles within 10 days. They would also have to report any deactivation of autonomous mode during operations, be it testing or transporting goods or passengers, and have a human safety operator onboard.

There has been quite a bit of development and investment in autonomous trucks over the past few years, but few driverless runs have gone beyond the controlled testing stage. Companies include autonomous technology firm Gatik, whose clients include investor Ryder and Walmart for middle-mile transport, and Aurora, which has been powering autonomous linehaul routes for FedEx in Texas. Apparently, the Lone Star state is to autonomous trucks what Arizona is to autonomous cars as a proving ground.

Except for Gatik and Walmart, which did driverless runs between an Arkansas dark store and a retail outlet in 2021, autonomous trucks have had human operators.

On a smaller scale, Clevon, whose fully autonomous courier vehicles are designed to run on city streets vs. sidewalks for bots like fellow Estonian startup Starship, made its first delivery in Dallas last December. The company set up shop in Fort Worth, TX in 2022.

While safety is of course the number-one concern, opportunities for efficiency gains driving cost savings in autonomous trucking are hugely alluring. A 2021 study by Georgia Tech commissioned by Ryder found that a regional autonomous middle mile hub network could reduce costs between 29% and 40%, attendees were told at Ecommerce Operations Technology Summit 2022. The results were based on data from Ryder’s dedicated transportation network in the Southeast.

Mark Petrosoniak, Senior Manager of Strategy and Business Operations for Gatik, addressed the safety issue during the panel discussion, saying Gatik had a record of no incidents. It also powers autonomous trucking operations in Canada.

Highway lanes, Petrosoniak said, were “designed for autonomous trucks,” making middle mile logistics the perfect candidate. “Variability is amplified in other (legs of distribution and fulfillment),” he said. “Why spend 90% on the last 10% of a route, when there’s so much other ground to cover?”

Pascal Van Hentenryck, Director of the NSF AI Institute for Advances in Optimization at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said there is a need to create dedicated lanes for autonomous trucks, much like HOV lanes for commuters.

“It has been studied in a number of states now, including Georgia,” said Van Hentenryck, who also spoke on the panel. “Maryland is also moving forward nicely with autonomous trucks.”