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Why does California lag in autonomous freight commercialization testing?

Technology-savvy state risks falling behind as autonomous trucking advances

Back in 2012, California adopted legislation, rules of the road so to speak, for the operation of autonomous vehicles on Golden State roadways. It took three more years, until 2015, for implementing regulations to follow.

No rules covered the hauling of autonomous freight — specifically trucks exceeding 10,001 pounds because they didn’t exist. The inspection regime for trucks was another reason. The California Highway Patrol needed to be consulted, so the issue was put off.

It may slowly be reemerging. After dozens of autonomous trucking and technology founders, CEOs and others wrote to Gov. Gavin Newsom in June, California in late August released “Driving the Future: Autonomous Vehicles Strategic Framework Vision and Guiding Principles.” 

The nine-page document concludes that “AVs hold the promise to be an important part of our mobility future,” but adds “they are just one part of a broader set of solutions.”

A politically safe framework

A read of the document shows it to be both politically safe and politically correct. Every group, social concern and stakeholder ranks high in importance. But as the villainous Syndrome famously said in the animated classic “The Incredibles,” “When everyone’s super, no one will be.”

Enter Ariel Wolf and the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association. The general counsel of the group wants to see California move it or lose it when it comes to ushering in commercialization of autonomous trucks.

“No one was really talking about autonomous trucking in 2014, 2015. What they said at the time was, ‘All right, we can deal with passenger cars [and] light duty. We’ll get around to issuing regulations for trucks at a later time.”

Now, nearly eight years later, nothing has happened. That’s even as autonomous trucking startups Plus, Embark Trucks, Kodiak Robotics and Waymo Via  make their headquarters in Silicon Valley. TuSimple is based in San Diego.

Getting the parties talking about autonomous freight

“There’s this general principle that once you put in a prohibition, it’s much harder to take that out than to authorize something in the first instance,” Wolf told me. “That’s a basic principle of public policy.”

Wolf should know because the AVIA is a policy-based trade group. Its model legislation for AV commercial operation has informed legislation in numerous states. AVIA wants a clear path for robot trucks nationwide. For now, it would settle for getting the parties talking in the world’s fifth-largest economy.

“As autonomous trucking has matured as a commercially viable option, it’s drawn more interested stakeholders and become more of a flashpoint. It’s going to be 2023 soon and we see strong headwinds from some of the stakeholders in California and we’re pushing really hard to try and open up a rule-making to address what they said they would do in 2015.”

Taking commercial testing elsewhere

Meanwhile, autonomous trucking companies do their testing in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Kodiak operates in 10 mostly Sun Belt states — hauling freight longer and longer distances with safety drivers — to prove out the technology. TuSimple removes the driver from the truck entirely for pilot runs in Arizona with an eye toward expanding to Texas.

A Texas law enforcement officer makes a call about an autonomous truck stopped during testing.
An Embark autonomous truck waits roadside while a law enforcement officer checks it out. (Photo: Embark Trucks)

“California is the leader in technology in general and with the 2012 law was one of the first to get involved in the autonomous space,” Wolf said. “But they’re in real danger of falling behind on autonomous trucking.”

Whether 80,000-pound trucks or ride-hailing robotaxis, AVIA takes a three-prong approach for safe operation of AVs that requires: 

  • Meeting a minimum risk condition, taking itself to the side of the road when in trouble.
  • Complying with state and local traffic laws.
  • Self-certifying that it meets federal requirements.

“Maybe there’s a little more interaction with law enforcement on the front end and so forth. That’s all baked into our model legislation for everyone.”

If California would lift its weight cap, the rest would be easy. “It’s not going to be some thousand-page regulation,” Wolf said.

The ‘missing piece’ for autonomous freight

Don Burnette, Kodiak co-founder and CEO, is hopeful.

“We have a great relationship with the Highway Patrol, and so it’s an ever-evolving ongoing conversation. I would say it’s a very positive conversation,” Burnette told me. “Everybody wants to support this technology. They want to make sure we roll it out in a safe way.”

He acknowledges California is “the missing piece.” So far, the effects are minimal because other Sun Belt states are welcoming. “I wouldn’t say that has been holding us up to this point because all the states along the I-10, I-20 corridor are on board with this technology.”

On a federal level, an advanced notice of proposed rule-making from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration from 2019 has yielded nothing actionable yet.

“We’re being told that it’s close,” Wolf said. “That is going to be a very important piece of the puzzle.”

Another one bites the dust at TuSimple

With the resignation of Chief Legal and Administrative Officer Jim Mullen, practically the entire leadership team at autonomous trucking startup TuSimple Holdings has left the building since co-founder Xiaodi Hou took over as chairman and CEO in March.

Mullen, former acting administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, joined TuSimple in November 2020. Mullen often served as spokesperson to advance the company’s safety message.

Jim Mullen with a TuSimple upfitted autonomous truck.
Jim Mullen, TuSimple chief legal and administrative officer, is the latest to leave the startup. (Photo: Alan Adler/FreightWaves)

That message became blurred following an accident in April when one of the company’s human-supervised autonomous trucks crashed into a barrier on Interstate 10 near Tucson, Arizona, even as the safety driver tried to prevent the truck from obeying a software command that was 2 1/2 minutes old.

Susan Marsch, former chief legal officer at Flex Ltd., will be TuSimple’s  interim general counsel until TuSimple names a permanent successor, the company said in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing.

Mullen leaves Sept. 30. He gets to keep a $500,000 retention bonus awarded in April, five days after the crash. His separation agreement includes several sweeteners atop the $9.4 million in total compensation he received in 2021.

Mullen told Bloomberg Law that his departure has no connection to a civil suit filed Aug. 31 in federal court in San Diego, where TuSimple is based. The suit names Mullen and other executives as defendants, It alleges TuSimple rushed its autonomous trucks into testing before they were safe.

Former CEO Cheng Lu, co-founder and Chairman Mo Chen, CFO Pat Dillon and the head of marketing all have left the company since March.

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The last word

“It’s going to take a global village to raise the sustainability child.”

Rakesh Aneja, vice president and chief of eMobility, Daimler Truck North America, in a fireside Chat during the FreightWaves Autonomous and Electric Vehicles Summit on WednesdAY

That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading. Click here to get Truck Tech in your email on Fridays


Alan Adler

Alan Adler is an award-winning journalist who worked for The Associated Press and the Detroit Free Press. He also spent two decades in domestic and international media relations and executive communications with General Motors.