I grew up as the son of a grape and peach farmer in the Central Valley, and I'm proud to come from the home of half the country’s fruits, vegetables and nuts. Farming is always a precarious business, but the past year has brought even more challenges for Valley farmers.
This year alone, they’ve had to contend with severe drought and wildfires while a broad economic downswing rippled across the country. But today, California farmers are facing an unnecessary dilemma: forces beyond their control — supply chain bottlenecks brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic — are hindering them from getting their product to market.
Nearly 80 percent of California's agricultural shipments were canceled or delayed in October. Headlines have painted a picture of crops rotting in the field as they wait to be loaded onto trucks. California state leaders have an opportunity to meet the moment and help our region's farmers. Autonomous trucks have the potential to get the region’s exports moving freely again.
Everyone’s seen images of backed up ports and ships waiting weeks to drop their cargo, but the fact is, today’s supply chain crisis has almost as much to do with trucking as it has to do with shipping. At the heart of the crisis, a shortage of truck drivers years in the making has derailed the industry.
In September, the Port of Long Beach and Port of Los Angeles announced it would open 24 hours a day during the week. But just a couple of weeks later, they had to tighten their hours when no trucks showed up during the off-hours. The Port of Los Angeles reported that 30 percent of their port’s appointments for truckers were going unused, largely because of the driver shortage.
Across the country, labor shortages and high turnover in trucking have created a bottleneck in the supply chain. The U.S. is short 80,000 truck drivers, and analysts expect that number to double by 2030.
For Valley farmers, the lack of drivers and trucks threatens their ability to export nuts and produce to overseas markets. If they’re forced to sell their products domestically instead, a glut of product could cause prices to drop for all farmers. And if California can’t meet foreign demand, other countries' farmers will.
Fortunately, autonomous vehicle (AV) technology offers a promising solution.
No driver? No problem. Stores like Walmart and Kroger have driverless vehicles on the roads right now performing last-mile grocery delivery. Cities like Trenton, N.J., are exploring driverless buses for public transit.
California policymakers can help lift us out of the current crisis. Gov. Gavin Newsom should direct the Department of Motor Vehicles to commence a rulemaking enabling the testing and deployment of Class 8 autonomous trucks in California. Class 8 vehicles are the standard 53' tractor trailers you see on the road today, and their autonomous versions would enable longer distance freight-hauling from farm to port.
Americans are ready for driverless trucks. A recent survey by Morning Consult found that 53 percent of adults want autonomous vehicles to be tested in their state. And 75 percent of union members expressed support for expanded AV testing.
With 44 percent of our state's agriculture production being exported, California is in a unique position to enact policies with global ramifications. Unleashing the potential of autonomous trucking now will prevent forces outside farmers' control from affecting our food supply in the future.
No more farmers should have to watch their crops go to waste because of a logistics issue. Moving forward with autonomous trucking will ensure products get to ports, and farmers can maintain their livelihoods. That's essential for the well-being of California's farmers, and the entire Central Valley economy.
Adam Kovacevich, a Bakersfield native, is the founder and CEO of Chamber of Progress, a tech industry coalition.