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FILE – A Waymo driverless taxi drives on the street during a test ride in San Francisco, on Feb. 15, 2023. (AP Photo/Terry Chea, File)
FILE – A Waymo driverless taxi drives on the street during a test ride in San Francisco, on Feb. 15, 2023. (AP Photo/Terry Chea, File)

Imagine needing a new driver’s license every time you crossed a city line. That’s the gridlock scenario facing Californians with a new bill that would put the brakes on autonomous vehicles (AVs) throughout the state. This especially hurts the 797,300 blind Californians who can’t get a license – the very people who are among the main beneficiaries of the accessibility and independence AVs can provide.

Senate Bill 915 mandates that AV technology already approved by the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) receive additional authorizations from every single city in which they operate. An autonomous ride from Fremont to the San Francisco Airport passes through as many as 10 cities. Under SB 915, an AV would be prohibited from this route until each and every jurisdiction passed an ordinance. SB 915 will cause a patchwork of AV regulation that stymies the benefits of the technology as some cities will not put regulations in place and others will impose rules that are so complex that AVs are effectively not able to operate. Either way, Californians lose.

Autonomous vehicles are game changers for people with disabilities who are not served by current transportation options. Americans with disabilities are twice as likely to be unemployed, with only 21% workforce participation rate. Research from the National Disability Institute found that AVs will open new job opportunities for people with disabilities, while increasing U.S. economic output. Furthermore, autonomous rides offer dramatically enhanced accessibility to independence and a higher quality of life, taking advantage of all that California has to offer: culture, nature, restaurants, shopping, friends, family, and more.

This legislation is a serious equity problem for Californians. The blind and low-vision, people with disabilities, senior citizens, and other underserved communities would miss out on the improved accessibility and convenience AVs offer. There’s no meaningful independence if residents with disabilities are limited to specific routes or to service in specific cities. It’s not accessible transportation if their homes, jobs, schools, or other destinations are located in cities that haven’t or won’t authorize AVs.

The bill also creates new problems for cities. Think about it: not every city has the resources or technical expertise to craft AV ordinances. The resources and finances of California’s cities are challenged enough as it is and many would not be able to put in place appropriate safety regulations. At the same time, many smaller or lower-income jurisdictions are especially interested in AVs to supplement limited public transit or paratransit options. SB 915 would put AVs even farther out of reach for the blind and other people with disabilities in these localities.

Divergent and even contradictory local regulations of AVs from city-to-city will create a transportation nightmare.  An AV authorized in one city could be banned in the next, creating transportation dead zones and dead ends. This defeats the very purpose of the technology, which is to open transportation options. If AVs have to get city-by-city authorization, the technology’s accessibility benefits simply won’t materialize for Californians.

California already has a robust regulatory framework for AVs and has been a global leader in deploying the technology. Safety experts at CalSTA, the DMV, and CPUC have extensive experience overseeing and enforcing AV testing and deployment and have demonstrated deep engagement. They have established rigorous permitting processes that ensure safety on the state’s roads. These expert agencies have far more experience, qualifications, and resources to oversee AVs than local municipalities. 

Governor Newsom called AVs “the future of California’s transportation,” highlighting their opportunities for safety, accessibility, and economic growth. Unfortunately, SB 915 directly contradicts these laudable goals and undermines the ability of the state to effectively regulate AV technology at a critical moment.

AVs hold immense promise for Californians who are beginning to demonstrate the mobility gains that the Golden State can reap. California should continue to be a leader in AVs, not a roadblock. We urge lawmakers to reject SB 915 and instead allow this technology to transform accessibility for all Californians.

Tim Elder is President of the National Federation of the Blind’s California Affiliate. Jeff Farrah is CEO of the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association (AVIA).