Legislators Challenge DMV’s Ability to Ensure Safety as Driverless Trucks Face Scrutiny

By Russ Mitchell, Staff Writer | June 1, 2023 | 5 AM PT

California legislators are raising concerns about the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and its capability to regulate driverless vehicles, particularly in the case of autonomous trucks. The legislators argue that the DMV’s track record in overseeing driverless cars indicates a lack of competence in ensuring the safety of driverless trucks on highways.

A recent incident involving Teslas operating in self-driving mode, which resulted in crossings into oncoming traffic and collisions with parked cars, has fueled doubts about the potential consequences of a similar situation involving an 80,000-pound, 18-wheel driverless truck.

To address these concerns, Assembly Bill 316 (AB 316) was passed in the Assembly, proposing to transfer control of driverless truck testing and deployment from the DMV to require human drivers to be present in the vehicle for at least five years while collecting a safety record. The bill now awaits approval from the state Senate before reaching Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk for his signature.

Proponents of AB 316 argue that effective regulations rely on shared data, institutional trust, and public transparency, which the DMV has struggled to provide. Assemblyman Ash Kalra (D-San Jose) emphasized the importance of the issue and expressed doubts about the DMV’s ability to consider future consequences adequately.

The head of the Assembly’s transportation committee, Laura Friedman (D-Glendale), criticized the DMV for its poor performance in regulating driverless vehicles, stating that the agency has not fulfilled its responsibilities in this area.

DMV Director Steve Gordon did not respond to a request for comment from The Times, maintaining a low media profile since his appointment in 2019.

The issue of the DMV’s handling of driverless vehicles is not isolated to autonomous trucks but also extends to the relationship between the DMV and Tesla. The DMV permits Tesla to test its driverless technology on California roads without a permit, unlike other companies that must adhere to rules requiring permits and trained test drivers. Tesla markets its feature known as Full Self-Driving, which the DMV allows despite its own rule against marketing cars as autonomous when they cannot fully drive themselves. The DMV’s investigation into this matter has been ongoing for over two years, causing concerns among lawmakers.

Opposition to AB 316 comes from the driverless technology industry, which argues that the bill would harm California’s position as a leader in autonomous vehicle development and economic competitiveness. However, supporters of the bill believe such claims to be exaggerated and highlight the abundance of technology talent in Silicon Valley.

While AB 316 would not entirely block driverless truck deployment at ports or on private property, it would slow down the plans to deploy driverless trucks across California highways. Safety concerns are a significant factor, and some argue that the trucking industry’s primary interest lies in reducing labor costs, as the deployment of autonomous trucks could lead to substantial savings by replacing human drivers.

As the debate continues, the safety and reliability of autonomous trucks remain a subject of contention. While some industry representatives claim that autonomous trucks are safer than those operated by humans, there is insufficient evidence to support such assertions conclusively. Legislative members argue that further study is necessary, especially when it comes to extending autonomous technology to large commercial vehicles.

AB 316 aims to provide an opportunity to uncover potential glitches and ensure appropriate safety measures are in place before widespread deployment of autonomous trucks. However, the driverless trucking industry believes that legislative decisions should be left to experienced regulators at the DMV rather than lawmakers without specialized expertise.

The future of driverless trucks in California remains uncertain as the state Senate’s decision on AB 316 approaches, with potential.

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