Regulation is often one, two or even three steps behind technology’s pace of development. But occasionally, a policymaker will seek to move proactively — too proactively — to address a policy challenge that may never come to pass.
Such is the case with Senate Bill 336, prepared by state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, which seeks to enforce a minimum staffing requirement for highly-automated vehicles (HAVs) acting as “fully-automated transit vehicles” — in laymen’s terms, passenger vehicles that drive themselves. If the bill becomes law, any fully-automated passenger vehicle operated in California would have to maintain at least one staff member on board at all times.
On its face, the rationale for the requirement — to assist passengers with special needs and to make sure that HAVs operate safely — makes sense. But the bill is demanding a staffing mandate before any accessibility or safety issues have arisen. Indeed, without HAVs having been deployed in any meaningful sense, the nature of the challenges confronting their accessibility and safety are unknown — and unknowable.
Put another way, Dodd’s bill places the cart before not only the horse, but before the very existence of the horse to pull the cart.
This proposal is animated by the best of intentions; unfortunately, it will lead to the worst of outcomes. To begin, in the absence of compelling and documented safety and accessibility demands, the costs of the mandate are exorbitant. One of the major advantages of HAVs is that they will force down the cost of operating and using vehicles, enabling those facing the greatest transportation hurdles — especially the poor and those on a fixed income — to navigate their communities with greater ease. But because operators of these vehicles would rightly be entitled to a meaningful wage, a staffing mandate would limit access to HAVs for those communities by driving up their costs.
In that vein, if the bill’s aim isn’t actually to improve safety or accessibility but rather to preserve employment in the transportation sector, the fix it proposes is problematic. Creating jobs through legislative fiat to serve needs that have not been demonstrated is not a sustainable answer to questions about how to address the impact of automation on California’s workforce. Instead, it is a shortcut that will lead to quasi-governmental work programs requiring subsidies on both the supply and demand side of affected businesses — thus driving up costs for taxpayers.
Another cost of the proposed policy will likely come in the form of opportunity costs. For instance, disincentivizing companies from developing technologies that function without human interaction could create a technology “path dependence” that would stunt the evolution of HAV technologies. It could also stymie the development of novel HAV business models by preventing firms from differentiating themselves on the basis of their approach to staffing. In either case, consumers would have less choice as a result and, ultimately, less access to transit.
Given that HAVs are poised to take to California’s roads in ever greater numbers in the years to come, any one of these outcomes would be disastrous. While still in its early stages, HAV technology holds the promise of bringing new mobility options to communities that existing modalities of transit have historically underserved — including the elderly, the infirm and the disabled. But the regulatory missteps made today can easily undercut the technological promise of tomorrow.
That’s why maintaining a regulatory environment that allows firms to create novel business models tailored to these new technologies is a necessary stop on the path toward a more inclusive mobility environment. That’s why the Legislature needs to hit the brakes on SB 336.