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Newsom leans toward allowing autonomous trucking in California

“And as the years go by

Our friendship will never die

You’re gonna see it’s our destiny

You’ve got a friend in me” — Randy Newman

The battle over whether to allow heavy-duty autonomous trucks on highways in California is coming to an end. It would be premature to call the outcome, but Gov. Gavin Newsom is lining up behind advanced technology over organized labor. Both are major constituent groups of the Democratic governor.

Assembly Bill 316 would effectively kill autonomous testing and commercialization for trucks above 10,001 pounds without a human driver in the cab. It has received consistent bipartisan support and passed the Assembly in May. A final closed-door hearing in the Senate is next Friday. If it passes there, Newsom would be on the hook to either veto the bill or work out a compromise.

Is a veto ahead?

Newsom did not weigh in himself. But a letter from the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development to AB 316 sponsor Cecilia Aguiar-Curry left little doubt about his leaning.

“AB 316 takes an inflexible approach to regulating a growing industry borne out of California’s innovation economy,” said the letter signed by business office director Dee Dee Myers and reported first by Politico.

“Significant checks and balances already exist, including oversight by the California Department of Motor Vehicles, the California Public Utilities Commission, California Highway Patrol, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the U.S. Department of Transportation.“

The Department of Motor Vehicles also wrote to Aguiar-Curry opposing the bill.

The legislation would put the legislature in the role of deciding if and when autonomous freight could roll. Backers of AB 316, led by the Teamsters union, point to job losses and safety as their key objections.

“We’ve already seen dozens of AV-related safety incidents and it’s time we stopped treating the public like crash test dummies,” Jason Rabinowitz, Teamsters Joint Council 7 president, said in June after the first Senate committee passed the bill.

Some recent well-publicized flubs by autonomous cars added fodder for opponents. A driverless Cruise ran into a fire truck and another got stuck in wet cement. The state Public Utilities Commission asked Cruise to ground half its 400-vehicle fleet in San Francisco while it investigates.

The PUC drew the ire of organized labor Aug. 10 when it voted to allow Cruise and Waymo to begin charging for autonomous rides. San Francisco officials unsuccessfully fought against the robo-taxi rollout.

In Sacramento, where the trucking legislation will be decided, Myers made it clear that Newsom, a former San Francisco mayor and longtime technology supporter, favors the robots.

Losing business to other states

“AB 316 addresses autonomous trucking in a vacuum,” Myers wrote. “The bill fails to recognize that the federal government and nearly a dozen other states are moving forward with this technology. And many of those states are actively positioning themselves to lure away California-based companies and the investments and jobs they bring.”

That’s already happening. Despite being headquartered in California, autonomous trucking developer Kodiak Robotics is doing its testing and route planning in Texas. Aurora Innovation, which like Kodiak was founded in Mountain View but now is headquartered in Pittsburgh, also tests in Texas. Torc Robotics, based in Blacksburg, Virginia, does its testing in New Mexico.

California actually was early to the autonomous vehicle space. In 2012, it approved light-duty autonomous vehicles and trucks weighing less than 10,001 pounds. It delayed considering heavy-duty trucks until late last year when it began to take comments on a framework for deploying them. That fired up opponents and led to AB 316 being introduced.

“It’s really interesting to note that there were bills like this in seven states [during the] last legislative session,” Jeff Farrah, executive director of the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association, told me. “[They] failed in six out of the seven. The only state that this idea has gotten any traction is California.”

With Newsom weighing in through his business office, that traction could be slipping.

Helping hands for electromobility

Navigating the purchase, charging, infrastructure and incentives around electric trucks are tasks for which many fleets have neither time, training nor patience.

Volvo Trucks North America (VTNA) this week addressed that with its Turnkey Solutions program. Touted as a consolidated fleet management and procurement process, it complements the Volvo Gold Contract for maintaining Volvo VNR Electric Class 8 trucks.

“We simplified the process for customers, allowing them to easily turn to our solution-oriented vendor partners who understand key aspects of the EV charging industry,” VTNA President Peter Voorhoeve said. “This makes the electromobility transition easier for fleet managers, allowing them to focus on their daily business operations.”

Volvo is just the latest to offer soup-to-nuts electromobility services. 

OEMs and startups all in on consulting

Daimler Truck North America introduced Detroit eConsulting in May 2021. It consists of a team of eMobility experts dedicated to helping customers navigate electric truck conversion starting with an eFill line of electric commercial vehicle chargers.

The top-tier Megaline package recommended for large-scale electric truck deployments offers assistance with planning for charging infrastructure, solar panel and stationary energy storage projects. The eConsulting team also works with local utilities on the customer’s behalf.  

Kenworth and Peterbilt come alongside  customers with a full-service approach to zero-emission vehicle adoption. Staff experts analyze customer applications and advise the best truck specifications.

Paccar Parts offers a suite of direct current fast chargers from 20 kilowatts to 350kW. EnTech Solutions and Schneider Electric handle infrastructure work from site assessment to installation. And in-house grant experts help customers apply for state and federal grants and incentives for trucks and charging infrastructure.

Peterbilt said it has helped customers secure $40 million in grants this year.

Navistar takes a three-phase approach that starts with consulting. Then comes charging infrastructure and finally deployment and finally aftercare for its eMV Series medium-duty trucks.

OEMs have competition in the consulting space from startups like WattEV, Zeem Solutions and Forum Mobility, just three truck-as-a-service businesses offering a monthly price for a truck, charging and more.

Briefly noted …

Mack Defense is building another 135 M917A3 Heavy Dump Trucks for the U.S. Army under a seven-year, $296 million contract awarded in 2018.  

The beefy Mack Granite-based heavy dump truck for the U.S. Army (Photo: Mack Defense)

Lightning eMotors fleets have surpassed 5 million miles of battery-electric powered driving. Lightning vehicles are part of 80 fleets in North America.

Australian toll-road operator Transurban is partnering with Plus to test its high-autonomy Level 4 system in Transurban’s automated freight program.

Fast Company magazine awarded autonomous truck developers Kodiak Robotics a 2023 Innovation by Design Award for its SensorPod that contains radar, lidar and cameras in the side mirrors.

Against all odds, Nikola has begun production of its Class 8 hydrogen-powered fuel cell trucks in Coolidge, Arizona.

Carl-Henric Svanberg declined reelection as chairman of the AB Volvo board of directors. Separately, Hyzon Motors has elected Erik Anderson as chairman. He led the special purpose acquisition company that brought Hyzon public in July 2021.

Volvo Trucks North America is working with Linde Canada Inc. on a one-time pilot to import five Volvo FH liquefied natural gas-powered trucks to Canada.

Platform Science will partner with Averitt Express to roll out Platform Science’s Virtual Vehicle platform to more than 5,000 trucks in Averitt’s less-than-truckload, truckload and dedicated divisions.

That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading. Click here to get Truck Tech via email on Fridays. And keep up with the latest Truck Tech TV conversations on the FreightWaves YouTube channel on Wednesdays at 4 p.m. Next week’s scheduled guest is David Liu, co-founder and CEO of autonomous trucking software developer Plus.

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