After autonomous vehicle interests spent at least a quarter of a million dollars on lobbying and treated two senior gubernatorial aides to a bougie dinner, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) vetoed a bill Friday night that would have banned self-driving trucks from operating in the state without a safety operator aboard.
The veto delivered a massive win to Big Tech and a major blow to labor unions and road safety advocates, since backers of the bill say the rapid rise of driverless trucks may jeopardize trucking jobs and make public roadways more dangerous.
Newsom’s veto is the latest successful lobbying effort for the growing autonomous vehicle industry in the influential, Democratic-led state.
It comes on the heels of the California Public Utilities Commission approving permits allowing robotaxi companies Cruise and Waymo to operate essentially without limits in San Francisco, following a multi-million dollar industry lobbying surge.
Local chapters of the Teamsters union repeatedly urged Newsom to sign the autonomous truck safety bill, which would have protected truck driving jobs into the future. But Newsom’s team signaled its opposition last month.
The Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development (GO-Biz), an office Newsom directly controls, took the rare step of formally coming out against the bill by sending a letter of opposition to its author, Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry (D).
Dee Dee Myers, a senior Newsom advisor and director of GO-Biz who served as White House Press Secretary in the anti-union Clinton administration, argued the trucking bill would undermine existing oversight, hamper economic competition, and inhibit “the state’s ability to carry forward momentum from billions of dollars in recent investments for supply chain infrastructure.”
“Our state is on the cusp of a new era and cannot risk stifling innovation at this critical juncture,” wrote Myers.
Tech industry lobbyists treated Myers and one of her GO-Biz colleagues to a $263 dinner at Il Fornaio, an upscale Italian restaurant in San Jose, in May, as the autonomous truck safety bill was working its way through the state assembly.
Myers did not respond to a request for comment, but GO-Biz issued a statement.
“As with any bill that stands to impact California’s economy, our office met with stakeholders on both sides of this issue throughout the legislative cycle,” a GO-Biz spokesperson said in an email to The Lever. “Ultimately, our opposition to the bill was borne out of our desire to continue fostering innovation and growing jobs in the state.”
Newsom’s office directed The Lever to his veto statement, without answering questions regarding lobbying efforts and Newsom’s decision-making.
Big Tech’s ability to gain exclusive access to lawmakers and their advisors on matters like this infuriates workers, said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who supported the autonomous truck safety bill.
“This is what enrages the working class in this country, that you have big donors that are influencing these decisions,” Khanna said. “[The veto] was really a punch in the gut to workers, and their concern about whether corporate greed and big money is driving decision making.”
“We Shouldn’t Trust Large Trucks To Be Driving Without An Operator”
Regulation of driverless cars has been mostly left to the states, and California, Texas, and a handful of others are at the forefront of an industry push to build a nationwide driverless freight system.
As the technology improves, trucking companies hope to ditch the humans and rely solely on computers to steer the 10,000 pound-plus vehicles on public roads. Autonomous vehicle companies have often pointed to internal data that found driverless vehicles are safer than human drivers, but lawmakers have repeatedly questioned these assertions, saying there simply isn’t enough mileage and drivetime to back their claims.
A 2016 RAND Corporation study found that autonomous vehicles of all kinds need to be driven “hundreds of millions of miles and sometimes hundreds of billions of miles to demonstrate their reliability in terms of fatalities and injuries.”
California’s self-driving truck bill would have required all autonomous vehicles weighing more than 10,001 pounds to have a safety operator onboard at all times during testing and operations. It would have also required more stringent testing than what the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) currently requires for such vehicles, including a detailed report on autonomous trucking’s impact on jobs.
Last year, in response to a public records request for materials related to Waymo’s driverless taxi operations in San Francisco, the DMV invited Waymo to sue the DMV in order to prevent it from releasing crash data and public-safety details related to the program.
The driverless truck bill, AB 316, soared through the California legislature with overwhelming bipartisan support. It had the backing of the Teamsters, AFL-CIO of California, the California Highway Patrol’s union, and a number of municipalities and elected officials across the state.
“Gov. Newsom has got to stand up for working people and do the right thing here,” said Lindsay Dougherty, Teamsters Western Region International Vice President, in a September 19 press release. “If Gov. Newsom fails in the simplest of tasks and does not sign AB 316 into law, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters will never let him forget it.”
Last week, the Teamsters organized a trucker convoy from Los Angeles to Sacramento to rally outside the state capitol for the bill.
Khanna said that having drivers in automated trucks is also a safety issue.
“It makes no sense to have these large trucks without having a driver there, for when there are storm conditions, hazardous conditions, and safety [issues],” Khanna said. “We wouldn’t trust planes to fly without pilots, and we shouldn’t trust large trucks to be driving without an operator.”
But Newsom was seemingly unbothered by calls to sign the bill, and vetoed it late Friday night.
In his statement, he called the bill “unnecessary for the regulation and oversight of heavy-duty autonomous vehicle technology in California, as existing law provides sufficient authority to create the appropriate regulatory framework.”
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The California DMV does not currently allow autonomous truck testing for vehicles over 10,001 pounds on public roads. But lawmakers framed the driverless truck bill as a way to get ahead of future issues after state legislators voiced concerns about the DMV’s handling of autonomous vehicle permits in San Francisco.
In his veto statement, Newsom pledged to study the employment impacts of autonomous trucking, but did not commit to protecting jobs, one of the Teamsters’ core demands.
Throughout 2023, leaders in both Big Tech and the auto industry worked diligently against the driverless truck bill.
Waymo, an autonomous vehicle company owned by the parent company of Google, spent $80,000 lobbying on the legislation, autonomous truck regulations, and other measures so far this year, and reported directly lobbying the governor’s office and the California Transportation Agency.
The Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association, a lobbying group, has spent $90,000 on lobbying efforts this year. The organization lobbied the legislature and the governor’s office on the autonomous trucking safety bill, and lobbied the California transportation regulators on autonomous vehicles. The trade group also lobbied the California Public Utility Commission on data reporting rules.
The Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a tech industry lobbying group whose members include Aurora, Cruise, and Waymo, has spent $56,000 this year lobbying against the driverless truck legislation and nearly two dozen other bills.
The influential tech group also reported treating Myers, the senior Newsom advisor and GO-Biz director, as well as GO-Biz senior advisor Kaina Pereira to a $263.64 dinner on May 18.
Myers has extensive corporate ties across multiple industries. She sits on the board of directors for Wynn Resorts, a Las Vegas-based casino chain, and collects over $100,000 a year in director fees from the company, financial disclosures show.
She also holds over $1 million in Wynn Resorts stocks, collects over $100,000 a year from Warner Bros. for a bonus she received while working as its head of communications, and holds between $100,000 and $1 million in AT&T stock.