Driverless Cars and, Oddly Enough, California's Legislature in Harmony with its Voters

Two big questions (and lots of little ones) are on my mind today. 

The first big one is, how often is a bill practically unanimous in a state legislature?

There’s a bill in California that seeks to ban driverless trucks over 10,000 lbs.  Since cargo trucks can usually weigh as much as 80,000 lbs total (that’s counting everything – the vehicle, the cargo, the driver, a full tank of fuel, etc.), this bill covers everything from straight trucks to semi-trailers and similar big rigs.

The ban – through at least 2031 – passed the state assembly in Sacramento back in May, 69 to 4.  It passed the state senate on Monday, Sept. 11, 2023, with a vote of 36 to 2. 

Polling has indicated that the public supports the ban by a factor of three to one.  Gov. Gavin Newsom, a man who hopes to be president someday soon, is reportedly opposed to the ban, and everyone is watching to see if he dares veto it or if he’ll accept the overwhelming public will, and sign it anyway.

One wonders why a politician might support the driverless truck industry.

California is the home of at least two driverless vehicle manufacturers, and as the global headquarters of big tech, the state is also the home of much of the support industry for such technology, both software and hardware alike.  Politicians love big businesses that are in a position to donate to campaigns, to sponsor big events, to pay lots of taxes - and to make a state that’s known to be very unfriendly to the business world pretend that it’s just as business-friendly as Texas and Florida.

Besides, what little experience we’ve had with driverless vehicles has reportedly been successful.  They tell us that most vehicle crashes are caused by driver error; eliminate the driver, and you eliminate the error. And in an era in which transportation gets more expensive by the hour, taking the driver out of the equation would lower the cost of transportation with a single stroke.

The Department of Transportation’s federal Hours of Service Rules that seek to protect the public from sleepy drivers don’t apply when there is no driver at all. Also, these things tend to be the most modern of vehicles, and are therefore battery-operated – “electric vehicles,” as they say – so they can manage in a universe in which the government is banning oil drilling, pipeline construction, and refineries more and more.

But with all these positives, why might a politician oppose the driverless truck industry, and support the ban – especially by such lopsided percentages?

There are plenty of reasons on this side of the argument too. 

The testing we’ve seen thus far has been extremely limited; it’s silly to assume that real life experiences with tens of thousands of vehicles in the nation’s most populous state wouldn’t be different. Californians have not been happy with San Francisco’s experiment with driverless taxis; the prospect of scaling that up to 40- and 60-foot long vehicles while the technology is still so new is more than disconcerting.  Most of the testing has been on the open road; the congested conditions of California’s great metropolises will pose a more formidable challenge.

Does California really want tens of thousands more vehicles on the roads that depend on the electric power grid, a grid that already shuts down or falters, with brownouts and blackouts seemingly all the time? If we’re already telling the individuals who drive personal EVs to go without charging their cars, and to go days or weeks without driving because there’s no power for them, does it really make sense to encourage the onboarding of thousands of trucks with ten or twenty times the draw on the grid of those comparatively tiny Teslas, Bolts, and Niros?

Legislators read the newspapers; they’ve seen the frequent reports of electric car fires, where these same batteries spontaneously explode for no apparent reason at all, sometimes sinking an entire cargo ship in the process. They read about how Nikola has given up trying to repair their electric batteries in the field; they’re recalling all affected electric trucks and asking owners to return them to the manufacturing plant while they look for a cure. 

Perhaps legislators read about how these fires often can’t be put out by any means available to firefighters; they just have to be allowed to burn themselves out.  Perhaps some politicians are extrapolating the logical conclusions from these stories, asking “do we need a 53’ truck full of cargo, burning on the shoulder of a busy California highway for three or four days because the fire can’t be put out, and the carcass can’t be moved until it cools, a couple weeks later?”

And maybe the legislators are thinking of how the nation employs millions of truck drivers, a time-honored path toward a decent and well paying career, and either a generally stable union job as an employee or a promising “owner-operator” job as an independent contractor.  Can a nation in recession, and a state like California that’s literally bleeding job opportunities, afford to eliminate such a dependable career opportunity from their constituents?

Perhaps some politicians, seeing all the challenges they already have with electric vehicles, are reasonably thinking that adding the driverless aspect on top of all that might be a bridge too far. Let’s see if we can fix the spontaneous combustion issue and the underpowered grid issue, before jumping on yet another bandwagon in the same dangerous parade.

And this brings us to my second big question.  How many times in one’s life does the typical person have a heart attack or stroke, versus how many times does a computer system experience a network downtime, a blown hard drive, a software glitch or a power outage?

The human driver can indeed experience a heart attack or stroke; it happens.

But at both our home computer and our office desktop, we have all experienced plenty of times when the software has frozen up or failed completely, sometimes in the middle of a job.  We have all had a cellphone or tablet quit without notice.  We’ve all experienced blackouts while we were in the middle of an MS Teams or Zoom meeting, or while writing an article or populating a spreadsheet.  In some areas, this happens several times per year.

We’ve all gone shopping, filling our carts and getting ready to check out, only to find that the store’s network went down so there’s no way for their cashiers to ring you up.

What if such an event happens when a driverless truck is rounding a mountain on the 118 or zooming up and down the hills of the 23 or the 101?

What do we do, if an unplanned, unexpected software failure hits while thousands of unmanned 80,000 lb vehicles are barreling along interstates like the 405, the 10, or the 710 in the middle of the night, or crawling bumper to bumper in the midst of busy rush hour traffic?

And finally, as much as we want to avoid asking this question, we must.

The Senate passed the ban on Monday, September 11. 

What if we had networks of driverless trucks all over the state, or even all over the country, and al-Qaida, or some other group like them, was able to plant a terrorist at a company headquarters, ready and now able to create thousands of costly and deadly vehicle pile-ups with a single software change or communication signal?

We live in a dangerous world today. We have to think of these things.

Technology can be our friend, but it can also be our enemy. Until certain risks can be completely ruled out, the wise heart chooses caution.


John F. Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based international transportation professional and consultant.  A onetime Milwaukee County Republican Party chairman, he has been writing a regular column for Illinois Review since 2009.  His book on vote fraud (The Tales of Little Pavel) and his political satires on the current administration (Evening Soup with Basement Joe, Volumes I and II) are available on Amazon.

Image: Linneakornehed, via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

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