"A fierce wrestling match over who should wield power in controlling robotaxis unfolds in California."

A wrestling match over who should control robotaxis is playing out in California


Cities across the United States have long sought greater control over the deployment of autonomous vehicles (AVs) on their streets. In California, this desire may finally come to fruition, with several AV-related bills making progress through the state legislature this month, potentially imposing more restrictions on companies like Cruise, Motional, Waymo, and Zoox.


Among these bills, SB 915 stands out for its potential to grant cities more authority to establish their own regulations concerning robotaxis, including parameters such as operating hours and designated pickup/drop-off zones. This bill, having passed the Senate Transportation Committee, is part of a broader legislative effort in California this year aimed at imposing guardrails on this pioneering technology.


The implications of these regulations are significant for all stakeholders involved. California, boasting the world’s fifth-largest economy, faces the challenge of striking a regulatory balance that safeguards residents while nurturing the innovative companies that have contributed to the state’s tech ecosystem. Companies like Waymo and Cruise, headquartered in California, risk encountering additional regulatory hurdles that could impede their expansion and path to profitability. Meanwhile, city officials and constituents are advocating for a voice in shaping the future of AV deployment.


Stricter regulations in California could influence other states to adopt similar measures, akin to the state’s leadership in setting vehicle emissions standards. However, this could also prompt companies to seek opportunities in states with more favorable regulatory environments.


Jeff Farrah, CEO of the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association (AVIA), highlights the challenge of navigating varied regulatory standards across California’s numerous cities and suggests that companies may prefer states with clearer, more consistent regulations.


While these AV bills are still in the early stages of the legislative process and subject to potential veto by Governor Gavin Newsom, they underscore the evolving landscape of AV regulation and its implications for both industry players and the public.


SB 915 — Giving local governments more power over AVs

Author/co-author: State senator Dave Cortese (D) | Assembly member Freddie Rodriguez (D)

Sponsors: California Teamsters and the California League of Cities.

SB 915 was introduced by Cortese on April 17 and subsequently progressed through the legislative process, gaining approval from the Senate Transportation Committee on April 23. The bill is slated to advance to the Appropriations Committee, where its fate will be determined. If approved, SB 915 will then proceed to the Senate floor for further consideration.


What is SB 915?

Senator Cortese, representing District 15 encompassing much of Silicon Valley, emphasized the significance of SB 915, stating that it empowers local governments to oversee the operations of autonomous vehicle services (AVs) within their communities. Presently, AV operations are exclusively approved or denied at the state level by agencies such as the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). While these agencies conduct proceedings to solicit public input, there’s no guarantee that local concerns will be adequately considered.


Under SB 915, local governments would gain the authority to enact ordinances regulating AVs within their jurisdictions, even if state agencies have approved their operations. This would enable cities to establish rules regarding hours of operation, vehicle quotas, and create their own permitting processes and penalties for AVs violating local traffic laws. Additionally, cities would have the opportunity to form coalitions with neighboring municipalities to collectively regulate AV services, enhancing local control and responsiveness to community needs.


Important to note: In addition to granting local governments authority over regulating autonomous vehicle (AV) operations, SB 915 includes provisions to address potential challenges in ordinance implementation. The bill specifies that if a local government fails to establish ordinances, possibly due to staffing shortages or workload constraints, the default regulations would align with what the state has approved.


Furthermore, SB 915 mandates that all AV commercial passenger service companies comply with disability access laws. It also requires these companies to implement an override system for emergency responders and provide training to such responders on how to manually override AVs in emergency situations. These measures aim to ensure the safety and accessibility of AV services, prioritizing the needs of all individuals, including those with disabilities, and facilitating effective emergency response procedures.


A patchwork of regulations

Opponents of SB 915, including the lobbying group Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association (AVIA), various Chambers of Commerce, and other tech and business industry groups, argue that the bill’s enactment would create a complex patchwork of local regulations, posing challenges for companies and potentially stifling innovation.


Jeff Farrah, CEO of AVIA, contends that cities traditionally have limited involvement in vehicle regulation, with oversight typically falling under state jurisdiction. He argues against singling out autonomous vehicles for localized regulation, advocating for consistency across the regulatory landscape.


In response, Senator Cortese defends SB 915, emphasizing the existing framework for vehicle regulation in the state and the role of local governments in addressing nuanced transportation issues. Cortese argues that granting localities regulatory authority enables more agile decision-making compared to the state’s bureaucratic process.


While acknowledging industry concerns about potential restrictions on AV operations, Cortese clarifies that SB 915 does not empower cities to ban driverless vehicles outright. He underscores the importance of involving elected officials in decisions regarding the deployment of AI technology, highlighting the need to prioritize public interests over corporate agendas.


Peter Finn, Western Region VP of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, echoes the sentiment that local governments should play a key role in regulating AI technology deployment, rather than ceding control to corporations solely focused on maximizing shareholder value.


In response to industry concerns, AVIA recently introduced its TRUST principles, outlining guidelines for AV companies to safely expand operations while fostering community engagement and ensuring transparency, cybersecurity, and privacy standards. These principles serve as both industry guidelines and a reassurance to governments that the AV sector is capable of self-regulation.


The rest of California’s autonomous vehicle pipeline

AB 2286, a revival of AB 316, aims to mandate human safety operators in the driver’s seat of autonomous heavy-duty vehicles. Despite Governor Newsom’s veto of the previous iteration in November 2023, due to widespread support, Assembly members Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, Laura Friedman, and Ash Kalra reintroduced the bill in February.


After passing the Senate Committee on Transportation on April 15, AB 2286 has been re-referred to the Committee on Communications and Conveyance for further consideration.


Additionally, the Committee on Transportation voted on April 22 to advance AB 1777, introduced by Assembly member Phil Ting in January. This bill seeks to amend the current vehicle code concerning autonomous vehicles (AVs). AB 1777 requires AV manufacturers to certify their vehicles’ ability to respond to and comply with specified geofencing protocols. It also mandates the display of a functional phone number on AVs, monitored at all times, to facilitate communication between the companies and law enforcement, emergency responders, and traffic control officers.


AB 1777, similar to SB 915, introduces provisions to hold AV manufacturers accountable for traffic infractions committed by vehicles operating without human drivers. This legislation aligns with the industry standard in most states, where manufacturers are considered the “driver” in the absence of a human operator.


In addition to imposing fines for violations, AB 1777 mandates AV manufacturers to submit quarterly reports to the DMV outlining their vehicles’ activities. Failure to comply could result in penalties ranging from permit suspension to operational restrictions.


Another bill, AB 3061, aims to enhance reporting requirements for AV manufacturers. By July 31, 2025, these companies would need to provide comprehensive reports to the DMV, detailing traffic violations, disengagements, incidents of discrimination, and barriers to accessibility for passengers with disabilities.


Under AB 3061, incident reports must be submitted promptly after any occurrence, with regular reports covering metrics such as vehicle miles traveled, unplanned stops, and wheelchair-accessible services. Furthermore, the DMV and other relevant agencies would be tasked with creating and publishing standardized incident forms and reports for public access. Failure to meet reporting obligations could result in fines, permit suspension, or revocation, with provisions for public submission of incident reports.

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