Legislation could stall company’s effort to get autonomous trucks on California highways
Aug 7, 2023

Legislation could stall company’s effort to get autonomous trucks on California highways

Assembly Bill 316 would keep self-driving trucks that weigh over 10,000 pounds off the road. Aurora Innovation CEO Chris Urmson discusses the bill’s implications for his company.

Aurora Innovation, a self-driving technology company, plans to commercialize autonomous trucks by the end of next year. So far, the company seems to be on that path in Texas. In California, where the company is partly headquartered and has incubated much of its technology, it’s a different story.

The company’s home state may push back on its innovations with California Assembly Bill 316, which would prohibit self-driving trucks weighing more than 10,000 pounds from hitting the road without a trained human operator behind the wheel.

The legislation’s got the support of labor unions including the Teamsters, who argue that it would save jobs and keep California’s roads safe. The bill could be headed to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk in the near future.

Marketplace’s Lily Jamali paid a visit to Aurora’s headquarters in the Bay Area and sat down with its CEO, Chris Urmson. She asked Urmson how this bill could halt the company’s advances in the Golden State. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Chris Urmson: AB 316 is a bill that would require, well, would basically mean that California is not a place for automated trucks. And from our perspective, so much of the United States is open for business, where they will see the economic benefit of this, they’ll see the safety benefit of this. Personally, it’s a little bit sad that having helped incubate this technology in California to not have Californians benefit from it.

Lily Jamali: I mean, on a scale of not a big deal to existential threat to your company, how would you rate your concerns about AB 316 right now?

Chris Urmson (Courtesy Aurora Innovation)

Urmson: I think I’d think about it more about the benefit to society. In the U.S., I think, somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 people die in truck-related accidents every year. There’s half a million truck-related accidents every year on our roads. And this is something that we can help. And driving a truck is a really important job, it’s a noble job. Our whole economy doesn’t work without it. At the same time, it’s a really tough, difficult job for the drivers. These are people that, for long-haul drivers, they don’t get to stay at home every night, they’re off on the road, perhaps weeks, months at a time. You know, they’ll miss their daughter’s or son’s soccer game, they have significant kind of health issues. Turns out if you’re a truck driver, you’re 10 times as likely to die on the job as the average American. And so while this is a really important, critical job, and the people who do it are doing something that matters for us, we can improve safety and we can help them have better, high-quality jobs. We’re creating jobs in this industry through this work. So today, we have vehicle operators that are helping us develop and test this, they move into triaging on the development side. But then we have terminal operations staff, we have remote assistance staff, we have these jobs that are around this really exciting, interesting industry of freight that just won’t be driving the truck in the long term.

Jamali: But the Teamsters don’t seem to be hearing that message. So they’re obviously very concerned about jobs because these are their members. They’re talking a lot about safety as well, which you touched on. I mean, how do you address the concerns coming from them? Do you feel it’s your responsibility to address those concerns?

Urmson: It’s part of why we founded the company, is that we see the importance of improving transportation. Fundamentally, transportation, the way we operate vehicles on the road, hasn’t evolved in 100 years. Since the Model T rolled off the line, there’s been a person behind the left-hand seat, we’ve had crank start, we’ve had air conditioning, seatbelts, all that. And this is the next big opportunity to improve that. And so we forget in these conversations that the status quo is not really acceptable. That 40,000 Americans died on roads last year, one and a quarter million people died globally. And we can push technology forward to reduce that. And so as we look at it, yes, we think it’s really important that we do our job well around developing a safe system. That this is why we’ve shared as much as we have about how we’re doing that, about how we’re using simulation, about our safety case. And then we think it’s important to see this technology come to market because without it, we’ve seen what happens, we’ve seen the fatalities and injuries on the road, we’ve seen the impact that an insufficient kind of ability to transport has had on the economy through the supply chain crisis we suffered through over the last few years.

Jamali: Can you talk a little bit about how you get that safety message to the American public because so many people still are uncomfortable with this technology? I think there was a recent AAA survey that found something like two-thirds of Americans still don’t trust this technology. How do you address that?

Urmson: And I think that’s reasonable. This is a new technology, and we should be held up to scrutiny. And we are, appropriately. Our approach is to educate, to provide, obviously, our belief in the value and importance of this technology, but also be clear about the challenges with it. And we haven’t yet seen this technology deploy broadly. And so many people in America haven’t had the chance to experience it. But I’m convinced as we see this technology roll out, people will understand and realize those benefits.

Jamali: Is it simpler, easier to do trucks than cars when you’re trying to do this autonomously?

Urmson: We think it’s a better business to begin with because, one, it’s larger market. So today, trucking is about a $700-$800 billion market in the U.S., and ride hailing is about a $60 billion market. So it’s 10 times bigger market. The economics are stronger. So we pay more to move goods than we do to move people. And so as we think about bringing new technology to market where it’s going to be more expensive to begin with, and less expensive over time, being able to enter a market where you have more revenue to work with means that we can become a more profitable, sustainable business sooner. We also see that it’s a much less emotional decision for the customer. So if I get in an Uber, and the driver takes 2nd instead of 1st Avenue or they cut through a gap in traffic that I wouldn’t, or they wait in a gap of traffic that I would have gone through, it’s kind of frustrating and annoying, and maybe I don’t want to have that experience again. In contrast, if I’m a shipper who is moving toilet paper from Dallas to Houston, what I care about is did it get there safely? Was it economical and get there on time? And so it’s a much less emotional business on that front. And so we see all of those adding up to a better place to start. And then over time, as we develop this technology, to begin to scale it as we’re able to demonstrate the safety of it will bring the cost down and then we’ll come and help make transportation for people better too.

Aurora’s Horizon autonomous truck. (Courtesy Aurora Innovation)

More on this

You just heard Marketplace’s Lily Jamali and Aurora’s Chris Urmson discuss his view that self-driving big rigs can make more business sense than cars. Proponents say that’s also true on safety grounds. Cross traffic and pedestrians are challenges that have plagued makers of autonomous cars but aren’t major issues on highways. Marketplace’s Kimberly Adams spoke with Wall Street Journal tech columnist Christopher Mims about this.

And there’s a debate here in California about whether the state is still the place to be for tech startups. Proposed laws like AB 316 are just the kind of fodder critics like to raise in those conversations. But in a commentary for CalMatters last year, Sean Randolph, head of the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, said, in essence: Make no mistake, tech is still huge here. He wrote that California gets almost $3 of every $10 in federal research money. Tech makes up almost one-fifth of the economic value produced here. And as startup ecosystems go, Silicon Valley is still No. 1 in the world, at least for now.

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