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As California Readies to Ban Self-Driving Trucks, The Only Winners Are Unions

California politicians seem unable to stop supporting measures that will crush innovation and worker freedoms in their state. Through a new push, known as Assembly Bill 316, labor unions in California are trying to ban autonomous trucking. This crony legislation threatens the future of self-driving tech in California and risks spreading to other states and the federal government. If that happens, the U.S. will fall behind the world in the race to autonomous driving, making us more reliant on production and commerce from foreign countries.

By forcing every “self-driving truck” to have a back-up driver at all times, California’s AB 316 is simply a ban on self-driving trucks. The proposal has been pushed through the legislature by powerful labor unions espousing fear-mongering talking points about autonomous tech.

Here’s the facts on self-driving tech: autonomous vehicle companies are undergoing rigorous testing and safety standard trials to give consumers confidence in them. Most deaths on all U.S. roads—not just in California—come from human errors and distractions while driving, but fear-mongering unions ignore this fact and misleadingly clamor that self-driving might actually be less safe than the status quo. During many tests, innovators of autonomous vehicle technology have demonstrated they have can drive safer, reduce crashes and save lives. Banning their ability to operate without a union driver will undermine these advancements and strip away these important tools for both drivers and entrepreneurs. 

We saw this protectionist technique from unions in California just a few years ago when they advocated strongly for the passage of AB 5. This law overregulated independent contractors in the state, requiring that they reclassify as full-time, traditional employees. That undercut entire industries like journalism, independent truck driving and ridesharing as most people who embrace independent contracting don’t want traditional work schedules—they want to design their own lives and their own manners of earning a living. 

Before AB 5 was signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, 88 percent of creative freelancers opposed the law’s provisions. After it passed, Californians across multiple sectors saw large layoffs, including for journalists, home caretakers, healthcare professionals, artists, musicians and even truckers—the very people the California labor unions claim to protect. 

Like AB 5, AB 316 is yet another example of unions trying to get back in control of the economy and new technologies—and putting their own self interests ahead of the wider public interest. 

There is also an important economic reason to support self-driving trucks, too. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the cost of transporting goods steadily increased and contributed to inflation. UPS and FedEx increased their shipping rates by 6.9% at the beginning of 2023. Additionally, increasing costs to hire someone because of policies like AB 5 and AB 316 (if passed), and, importantly, a shortage of truck drivers mean that the cost of transporting goods through may rise further.

Self-driving trucks have the potential to reduce the burden of those factors, lowering the costs of transporting, and therefore selling, goods. In our competitive economy, those price savings may be passed onto consumers.

Finally, it’s key for policymakers to consider how U.S. regulations impact our economy’s ability to compete internationally. Widespread use of self-driving vehicles is inevitable. The real question is where, not when, the benefits of this technology reach consumers. If California and other states curtail the development of autonomous driving, we will be importing—not exporting—self-driving trucks in 50 years. Lawmakers with genuine concerns should focus on how to safely integrate self-driving trucks on U.S. roads, not banning the very concept. Doing so will make America more expensive, less innovative and less competitive in the global economy.

California must change course in its approach to new technologies. Overregulation of tech to benefit crony pressure groups like big unions hurt not only California’s economy, but its consumers and workers, too. California should once again embrace the innovation and ingenuity that allowed it to be the tech envy of the world. That starts with throwing out proposals like AB 316.