California lawmakers want stricter regulation of autonomous vehicles

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A Waymo rider-only robotaxi during a test ride in San Francisco, California. File Photo: Reuters/Paresh Dave

California lawmakers, backed by labour unions, are demanding new legislation to prevent driverless trucks from operating without human drivers, following a series of concerning incidents with self-driving taxis by GM and Alphabet's Waymo.
The urgency has spiked after a Waymo robotaxi was set ablaze during Chinese New Year celebrations and reported accidents including a cyclist collision and a pedestrian being dragged. Acts of vandalism and public discontent are surging in San Francisco, prompting lawmakers to propose two new bills for tighter safety measures.

One bill, introduced by Senator Dave Cortese, aims to grant local authorities more power over permits and law enforcement for autonomous vehicles, challenging the current state-controlled system. The second bill insists on having a human driver in self-driving trucks over a certain weight. Assembly member Cecilia Aguiar-Curry emphasized the importance of safety and worker protection in the face of rapidly advancing technology during a rally on Monday.

An earlier version of the same truck bill was passed by state lawmakers last year, but Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed it, saying the current regulatory framework was enough to ensure safety. It was reintroduced in the state assembly on Thursday, in light of the Cruise accident.
The Teamsters, one of America's biggest unions, has long opposed the deployment of AVs citing safety hazards and job losses, and it backs both bills.

The Cruise and Waymo incidents "illustrate that this technology is not ready for prime time and that we can't trust these big tech corporations to regulate themselves," Peter Finn, a vice president at the union said.
Tech companies are major contributors to the economy of California, and tightening regulations on autonomous vehicles is perceived by some as complicated.

Waymo did not immediately respond to requests for comment on calls for more regulation and rising safety concerns. Cruise has said its handling of the October accident was a mistake and has offered to settle an investigation by a state regulator.
Many states, including Texas and Arkansas, allow the testing and operation of self-driving trucks. California already bars heavy-weight autonomous trucks but is in the process of creating regulations that would allow it. The re-introduced truck bill would delay that process.

Governor Newsom "will evaluate the bill on its merits if it reaches his desk," a spokesperson told Reuters, declining to comment further on pending legislation.
Autonomous trucks, which operate mostly on set routes and highways, have avoided high-profile accidents.
While Cruise is facing multiple investigations, including one by the Department of Justice, the Waymo incidents are being investigated by the city police.

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