Teamsters' California Campaign Against Driverless Trucks

Mark Gruenberg
Notice there is no driver in the driver's seat in this semi. Driverless trucks have already barreled down certain stretches of California highways and the Teamsters are fighting hard to stop them. | Photo credit: TuSimple

Feb. 16, 2023

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – A giant truck with no driver in the cab recently drove itself 80 miles from Tucson to Phoenix, Arizona.

TuSimple Holdings, a public corporation headquartered in San Diego, has announced it conducted an 80-mile driverless truck run along highways and streets, including Interstate 10, from Tucson to a location in the Phoenix area. The unusual thing about the drive was that no one was in the driver’s seat of the truck.

The company, which has tested self-driving trucks in Tucson, said the Dec. 22 trial run, conducted at night, was the first truck run of that type without a human driver. The company says the truck “interacted naturally” with other motorists on the road that night, presumably not aware that the vehicle in their rearview mirror or the one passing them on the left had no human being at the controls.

Waymo and other companies say they have also tested driverless trucks.

Does it sound creepy? The Teamsters think so and say it is dangerous too.

They have launched a campaign in California to ban driverless trucks, arguing those vehicles are safety hazards on the road.

The union’s three-pronged push started with opposition to the scheme at a state Department of Motor Vehicles public hearing in late January but moved to the state Capitol building in Sacramento at the end of the month.

The next stage is not just lobbying lawmakers, but garnering public support, starting with a mass rally on the California Capitol steps, and getting the state labor federation to work with sympathetic lawmakers on a bill, AB316, to ban any such vehicles over 10,000 pounds from state roads.

The union’s argument against driverless trucks is simple and straightforward: Tests show driverless cars are a hazard on the road. Driverless trucks would be even more so.

Builders of driverless trucks, called autonomous vehicles (AVs), push the technology. “Protection of our economy should be the number one concern, not the profits of these corporations that are pushing this technology, trying to make us move too fast,” Teamsters Joint Council 7 President Jason Rabinowitz retorted to a reporter for Automotive News.

But the Teamsters at the hearing and the demonstration emphasized safety, ahead of protecting truckers’ jobs and livelihoods, though that’s important to them, too.

“Already today, we’ve heard unfounded claims about how safe these vehicles are,” Matt Broad, director of the California Teamsters Public Affairs Council, told the state DMV in a video of the Jan. 27 public hearing. “But based on what?”

“Every single day I get online and I see videos of driverless so-called passenger-scale vehicles, malfunctioning, not being able to navigate routine traffic. It’s astounding to me that the DMV  would look at that and say ‘We want to double down but on large-scale commercial vehicles’.”

“I think it’s completely out of step with the DMV’s stated goal of regulating motor vehicle” companies and products “in pursuit of public safety.

Joe Garner, a truck driver and shop steward for the local 315 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, watches a rally at the California Capitol on Monday, Jan. 30, 2023, in Sacramento, Calif. Garner supports a bill that would require human drivers to be present for self-driving semi trucks. | Adam Beam/AP

“We intend to fight this through the regulatory process, through the legislature if one (bill) materializes, and in the court of public opinion.”

Half a dozen drivers, five of them from Teamsters locals, followed Broad to the podium. All said driverless trucks are a road hazard to other drivers and to pedestrians, too.

Trucks lock up

They testified driverless trucks “tend to lock up if they sense trouble ahead, and nothing can be done to stop them,” the Teamsters reported. “Calling themselves ‘first responders of the road,’ the drivers also told stories about the role they play in helping stranded drivers and others in trouble on the road—things an AV (automated vehicle) could never do.

“Today, automated vehicles are being tested on our roads, increasingly so, and at great speed,” Teamsters Local 439 told its members in inviting them to participate in the public rally days later. “But the truth is that self-driving technology is still in its infant stages and this poses a significant risk to drivers, passengers, and pedestrians alike.

“Not only does this technology have a long way to go before it’s fully ready for our roads, but it also puts jobs at risk. Self-driving technology threatens the livelihood of thousands of drivers, their families, and their communities. Teamsters Local 439 stands in solidarity with drivers across the country who are joining us in protest today.

“When it comes to safety, drivers cannot be outdone by self-driving technology. Technology fails and humans will always be more efficient than machines. The safety of drivers and the danger posed to pedestrians and other travelers on the road make automated vehicles a high-risk proposition. No!!! to self-driving diesel trucks.”

“This is not only about safety on the road for Teamster drivers and the driving public, but it’s also about the future of good driving jobs in this country,” Teamsters Joint Councils 7, representing Northern California, and 42, representing Southern California, said in the joint statement.

The rally drew more than 300 drivers. And the Teamsters garnered California Labor Federation support, specifically for bipartisan legislation AB316, which ”requires any heavy-duty autonomous vehicle” weighing at least 10,000 pounds “to have a human operator” when it’s on state roads. The state fed helped craft the measure, sponsored by Reps. Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, D-Winters, and Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale.

“This commonsense legislation is important for road safety and to maintain good jobs in the industry,” said state fed Executive Secretary-Treasurer Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, its chief.

The most prominent manufacturer of driverless cars is Elon Musk of Tesla, who’s aggressively anti-worker and breaks labor against organizing drives at his Fremont, Calif., plant.

In tests, driverless Teslas have developed a reputation for going out of control and crashing, potentially injuring any humans that happen to be riding in them.

Automotive News reported firms other than Tesla are developing driverless truck technology and eyeing its rollout in southwestern states starting in 2025.

But with California as the nation’s most populous state and as a trucking trade hub—truckers cart cargoes eastwards starting from the ports of Los Angeles-Long Beach and San Francisco Bay-Oakland—whatever the Golden State decides on the issue will have national impact.

Website editor note: More than 20,000 Canadian Teslas part of recall to fix 'full self-driving' system issues -

[Top photo: Notice there is no driver in the driver's seat in this semi. Driverless trucks have already barreled down certain stretches of California highways and the Teamsters are fighting hard to stop them. | Photo credit: TuSimple]