When legislation requiring heavy trucks to have a human operator onboard sailed through the California legislature earlier this year, the coalition of labor organizations backing it knew their victory wasn’t sealed quite yet.
They were right. Weeks after the bill’s passage, Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed it, arguing it would stifle innovation in the state. Teamsters and their elected allies vowed to not back down in their campaign against fully autonomous trucking.
The battle over the legislation, AB 316, may presage a broader fight over self-driving trucks ahead of what is set to be a critical year for the technology as it begins to be rolled out in earnest.
Despite claims of reducing accidents and assurances that autonomous vehicles will not displace truckers, the prospect of sharing the road with robotically controlled 18-wheelers continues to scare the public and alarm labor groups.
Companies in the autonomous trucking space have been piloting the technology for some time, moving long-haul freight for a wide range of customers across the Southwest, with the most traveled routes being between major metropolitan areas in Texas.
So far, these vehicles have been piloted by licensed operators ready to step in if needed. But major companies say they are now ready to remove that human presence and achieve what is known as Level 4 automation.
Image: Andrej Sokolow / Picture Alliance via Getty Images
Where are the autonomous big rigs?
Plans to deploy driverless trucks come at a fraught time for the technology and autonomous vehicles in general. Multiple firms focused on self-driving trucks have recently pulled back operations or folded entirely, and a high-profile robotaxi accident in San Francisco is sending shockwaves across the industry.
Aurora Innovation, founded in 2017 by alumni of Uber, Tesla, and Waymo, plans to deploy 20 fully autonomous trucks next year, with an eye on expanding to about 100 trucks in 2025 and eventually selling to other companies.
Kodiak Robotics, which boasts partnerships with Maersk, CR England, and Ikea, is also planning to launch driverless trucks in 2024.
“The technology is finally at a point where driverless is here, and it’s been a long time coming,” Kodiak’s co-founder and CEO, Don Burnette, who has been working in the self-driving vehicle space for 15 years, told The Verge. “We’ve really solved all of the fundamental technology hurdles that we need to; now it’s just about proving the safety.”
Other companies have longer timeframes for their launches.
“The technology is finally at a point where driverless is here, and it’s been a long time coming”
Torc Robotics, for example, has set a target of 2027 for the production of the driverless trucks it has been developing in a partnership with the manufacturing giant Daimler Truck.
While these three companies prepare for their launches, other once-major players in autonomous trucking have recently cut back on or ended their efforts to bring products to market.
The Alphabet subsidiary Waymo announced in July that it would be prioritizing vehicles for ridehailing. TuSimple laid off half its American workforce this summer and is said to be considering fully exiting the market to focus on operations in China amid management turmoil. Embark Technology laid off nearly a quarter of its staff in March before merging with another autonomous vehicle firm.
These setbacks are reflective of an industry that has not matured as quickly as some experts anticipated. Up until recently, many in the industry predicted that autonomous trucks would be on the road before self-driving vehicles were let loose in cities because highways are much less complex operating environments.
However, while robotaxis are moving customers in three major American cities and being tested in over a dozen more, driverless trucks remain stuck in neutral.
The safety case and faster freight
The first thing that companies and proponents bring up when making the case for autonomous trucking is safety.
In 2022, 5,887 people died in accidents involving large trucks, according to preliminary National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates. Supporters of autonomous systems frequently argue that removing the potential for human error from the equation would necessarily reduce accidents.
“The vast majority of human driven accidents are caused by drunkenness, drowsiness, or distractedness,” Sterling Anderson, Aurora’s chief product officer, told The Verge, echoing a common refrain among AV boosters. “Autonomous trucks have none of those things.”
Until driverless trucks are deployed at scale, though, this argument remains purely hypothetical.
“People are the cause of most accidents because, you know, grizzly bears can’t drive a vehicle,” Mike Di Bene, a Teamsters member and veteran commercial truck driver, jokingly pointed out.
“People are the cause of most accidents because, you know, grizzly bears can’t drive a vehicle.”
Proponents of the technology say that beyond removing human error, autonomous truck systems are safer because of their sensor systems and programmed defensive driving.
The sample size of autonomous trips is admittedly small, but the trucks have performed well when it comes to safety, according to publicly available crash data. In the few reported incidents involving self-driving trucks in Texas, where most companies have focused testing, other vehicles have been culpable.
Aurora recently simulated the 32 fatal collisions that occurred between 2018 and 2022 involving a tractor trailer on the Dallas to Houston route it will be launching on and claims that none of them would have occurred if the company’s system had been driving.
“Safety is the primary metric by which we measure the progress of our product,” Anderson said.
The other main argument in favor of self-driving trucks is that they are capable of moving freight much faster over long distances. Under guidelines set by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, truck operators are allowed to drive a maximum of 11 hours a day and have to take a 30-minute rest after eight consecutive hours behind the wheel. Autonomous trucks would face no such restrictions.
“With extended fuel tanks, our trucks can drive without stopping all the way from coast to coast,” Burnette said, estimating that a Kodiak truck could make the drive from Atlanta to Los Angeles in a little less than two days. “That’s a game-changer from an industry perspective.”
Despite the emphasis placed on safety by autonomous trucking companies, the public and drivers remain far from convinced.
Polling conducted as AB 316 moved through California’s legislature this year found that close to 80 percent of likely voters in the state would be uncomfortable with heavy driverless trucks on roads and freeways.
The general public’s reluctance toward driverless vehicles more broadly is likely to influence their feelings about trucks, no matter how much companies emphasize that driving on highways is easier than on dense city streets.
The public and drivers remain far from convinced
Robotaxis in cities like San Francisco, Phoenix, and Austin do not seem to have assuaged the public’s concerns. In fact, an AAA poll from earlier this year found that 68 percent of drivers are afraid of fully autonomous vehicles, up from 55 percent the year prior.
Many truck drivers are unconvinced that driverless systems are safer than human operators.
“While we think there are places where autonomous vehicles could operate hopefully without doing too much damage, our roads and streets, our highways of America aren’t that place right now,” said Todd Spencer, a veteran driver and the president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA), an organization representing 150,000 truckers across the US and Canada. “Our members are more concerned than most other drivers about these vehicles having the potential to kill them.”
Several drivers brought up the situation in San Francisco, where an autonomous Cruise vehicle seriously injured a pedestrian by dragging her under a car for 20 feet, as evidence of their safety concern.
“Even in the middle of nowhere, things happen in a split second,” said Jared Hamil, a Teamsters member currently working at UPS with experience in commercial trucking. “Whether it be an animal or a car or something, we have to be able to adjust to that at a moment’s notice.”
Labor organizations like the Teamsters, which represents tens of thousands of drivers, and the OOIDA have also expressed concerns that autonomous trucking will endanger the careers of their members.
“Our folks know they do an important job in our society, and they would prefer not to see their job eliminated via technology,” Spencer said.
Image: Bo Lee / Xinhua via Getty Images
The jobs debate
Proponents of self-driving trucks argue that concerns about worker displacement are overblown because adoption will be slow, there is a shortage of drivers now, and ultimately, the technology will create jobs.
While it is true that the 20 vehicles that Aurora puts on the road next year are unlikely to put any truckers out of work, unions are interested in protecting careers in the long term, not just the careers of current members. A 2018 study from the UC Berkeley Labor Center found that roughly 294,000 long-distance drivers could be displaced by autonomous technology.
Arguments by the industry about a deficit of operators almost always cite the American Trucking Associations, which claims there was a shortage of 78,000 truck drivers in 2022. Digging into publicly available numbers (PDF), however, shows the opposite. In California, for example, there were over 600,000 with Class A or B licenses in 2021 for only 140,000 “truck transportation” jobs. The problem, groups like OOIDA say, is actually in retention.
“Not a single one of those companies has put forward a proposal to demonstrate how exactly they’re going to create new jobs”
“There’s well over 400,000 CDLs issued every year,” said the group’s executive vice president, Lewie Pugh, referring to commercial driver licenses. “They just don’t stay. Within six months to a year they’re gone because they don’t make very much money. They’re away from home.”
A recent Department of Transportation-funded study found that between 26,400 and 35,100 jobs would be created by automating long-haul trucking with minimal layoffs.
The veracity of the claims on labor displacement aside, more has to be done by autonomous trucking companies to address worker concerns.
“Cruise, Waymo, Kodiak, Aurora, not a single one of those companies has put forward a proposal to demonstrate how exactly they’re going to create new jobs,” Teamsters spokesperson Matt McQuaid said. “We haven’t heard from the companies yet on that issue, which is paramount to us.”
That’s not to say companies have ignored workers. Some meaningful steps toward assuaging labor concerns have been taken. Aurora, for example, has worked with Pittsburgh Technical College and Gallatin College in Bozeman, Montana, to train new operators with skills specific to autonomous trucking.
But many labor groups feel like they’ve been left out in the cold.
“Nobody ever says what they’re really trying to do,” Norita Taylor, a spokesperson for OOIDA, said. “They invite the media for their demonstrations, and they have a lot of bells and whistles and woohoo-ing, but they never really say what they’re trying to ultimately accomplish.”
The drivers who spoke with The Verge for this story all said they have never heard directly from autonomous trucking companies.
When asked about outreach to unions or individual drivers, a spokesperson for the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association (AVIA) said it “continues to engage with labor organizations throughout the public process, including testifying alongside them in various state capitals and participating together in the California DMV trucking workshops.”
Twenty-three states have already authorized testing or deployment of driverless vehicles, according to the AVIA, and outside of California, efforts to regulate autonomous trucks have largely stalled so far.
However, with the increased attention that has already been brought to driverless vehicles by high-profile crashes and commitments by groups like the Teamsters to keep fighting autonomous trucks, new efforts to regulate the technology are bound to emerge. The lead sponsor of AB 316 in the California State Assembly, Speaker Pro Tempore Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, told The Verge that she plans to reintroduce similar legislation next session.
“I remain terribly concerned about the impact of lurching forward with unproven vehicle technology on California workers and public safety,” she said in a statement. “The industry admitted in public testimony they’ve not had conversations with their employees about what they might do to mitigate job losses. Rhetorical pats on the head about ‘more jobs’ with no detail or concrete plans don’t reassure workers and won’t feed their families.”
The model of requiring a human operator proposed in the labor-backed AB 316 may be a popular one given that it directly addresses fears about losing jobs and unmanned vehicles being unsafe.
For the industry, the proposal is a nonstarter because it wipes out the economic benefits of traveling faster and saving on labor costs. “The value proposition is simply not there if you’ve got a driver in the truck,” Aurora’s Anderson said.
“The value proposition is simply not there if you’ve got a driver in the truck.”
This position has frustrated drivers like Di Bene, who said it shows the companies are more focused on the bottom line than safety. “It just bothers me that these companies, in essence, agree with AB 316 until they want to sell the product,” he said.
Some studies do suggest that humans are not very good at intervening in moments of crisis if they’ve largely been disengaged from driving as they would likely be in these trucks.
An alternative to the compromise of AB 316 could be a system where autonomous trucks handle long routes between hubs while human drivers remain in charge for movement within cities and deliveries. But a proposal along those lines would likely have to come from companies and require significant outreach to convince workers.
Torc’s chief strategy officer, Andrew Culhane, told The Verge that engaging in “really honest conversations” with operators will be essential to build trust and make the adoption of self-driving trucks successful.
“A fear is valid, whether we think it’s justified or not,” he said. “If they have fears or reservations about this product, we need to have a conversation about it and understand what’s driving that and what can we do to move them forward.”
The launch of fully driverless trucks on America’s roads next year could be definitive for the technology. To see how an issue early on in the adoption of this kind of system can set back the whole industry, one has to look no further than Cruise — which, since the accident in San Francisco, has recalled 950 taxis and announced layoffs.
Companies face a high bar to overcome labor opposition and convince drivers that autonomous trucks will make American highways safer.
“Until AI can love and fear,” Di Bene remarked, “I don’t need it behind the wheel because I don’t want to die.”