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Feb 26, 2018

Council Authorizes City Attorney To Take BNSF Rail Project Case To State Supreme Court

Printed edition

After discussing the matter in closed session, the Long Beach City Council has authorized City Attorney Charles Parkin to appeal a state Court of Appeal’s ruling on BNSF Railway Co.’s Southern California International Gateway (SCIG) project to the California Supreme Court.

On January 12, the Court of Appeal ruled that the environmental impact report (EIR) for the project, a $500 million proposed intermodal railyard adjacent to Westside Long Beach and harbor communities, was sufficient with the exception of its assessment of air quality impacts. This overturned an earlier trial court ruling that found the EIR to have several other deficiencies, thereby making it less burdensome for BNSF to revise and correct the EIR to move ahead with the project.

Parkin told the Business Journal that he, and any other petitioners who wish to join in the effort, have until February 21 through 23 to file a petition for review with the California Supreme Court. He said he is in talks with other petitioners on the previous cases, such as the Long Beach Unified School District, some environmental groups and a handful of businesses in the area, to see if they would like to join in the effort. “We’re hoping that all of the petitioners will join and will be submitting a single petition to the Supreme Court. We think obviously has more weight,” he said.  

Parkin said that the California Supreme Court accepts only about 10% of petitions, and that he is accessing how best to present the case. “We have to make a compelling argument to the court so that they would take this matter and review it,” he said.

Printed edition

After discussing the matter in closed session, the Long Beach City Council has authorized City Attorney Charles Parkin to appeal a state Court of Appeal’s ruling on BNSF Railway Co.’s Southern California International Gateway (SCIG) project to the California Supreme Court.

Feb 19, 2018

Southeast ports to launch new chassis pool

Printed edition

The port authorities operating the Savannah and Charleston ports, concerned about the quality and availability of chassis to serve their growing volumes, have agreed to create a new chassis pool with a goal of adding 10.000 chassis or 25 percent more to the market by July 1. The pool would supplement the existing fleet operated by the South Atlantic Chassis Pool (SACP), which encompasses a wide territory from Wellington, North Carolina, to Jacksonville, and west to Atlanta, but would potentially be more limited in geographic scope. Georgia Ports Authority (GPA) Executive Director Griff Lynch told the 50th Georgia Foreign Trade Conference at Sea Island this month that other Southeast ports would be invited to join, but that if others declined to participate, “we’ll go forward without them.” Most chassis at the ports now are provided by the SACP, one of six regional cooperative pools managed by Consolidated Chassis Management, a subsidiary of the Ocean Carrier Equipment Management Association (OCEMA), whose members are major container lines. Lynch said supply from chassis providers has not kept pace with explosive growth at the region’s ports. Last year, total TEU volumes grew 11 percent through Charleston, while the chassis fleet barely grew, he said. “The system is broken,” Lynch said. “We’re at a bit of a standstill right now because what is happening is the folks that provide the chassis don’t necessarily want to put more chassis in unless they can get an adequate return on their investment.”

Printed edition

Mar 01, 2018

Congress Continues Opposition to DOT's Mexican Truck Program

Print edition

On September 9th, in reaction to the Administration’s announcement that it plans to extend the Mexican Tuck Program for another two years, the House passed HR 6630 with an overwhelming vote 395-18. Although NAFTA authorized long-haul Mexican trucking in the U.S., the bill would prohibit the Secretary of Transportation from granting authority to a motor carrier domiciled in Mexico to operate beyond the border region unless expressly authorized by Congress – effectively killing the cross-border trucking program. President Bush has threatened to veto the bill, and the Senate does not have the votes to override a veto.

The program allows up to 500 trucks from Mexico motor carriers full access to US roads, as opposed to a limit of 20-25 miles from the border. Currently there are 10 US companies with 55 trucks in Mexico and 27 Mexican companies operating 107 trucks in United States.

Despite authorization via the terms laid out in the 1994 NAFTA agreement, Congress has long opposed the program and began their attempts to shut it down in 2007 when, when the Congress amended the FY 2008 DOT appropriations and bill to prevent the use of funds to “establish” such a program. However (as reported previously in TCB), by the time the bill was passed, the DOT claimed the program was already “established” and used the funds as they deemed necessary. The DOT was subsequently sued in federal court by outside groups to shut down the program citing that their interpretation of the language of the bill did not justify their actions – a decision has not yet been issued.

Print edition

Jan 08, 2018

Port truck drivers sue logistics firm

Online Edition

A lawsuit was filed this week alleging that Southern California units of port trucking firm XPO Logistics Inc. improperly classified drivers as independent contractors rather than employees, depriving them of wages and benefits.

The suit, which seeks class-action status on behalf of about 160 or more drivers, was the latest step in a long dispute between some drivers and trucking firms that operate at the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Government officials and regulators also have entered the fray. In January, for instance, Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer sued three other port trucking companies, likewise alleging that the misclassification enabled the companies to avoid providing drivers with a legal minimum wage and employee benefits.

In the latest suit against XPO Logistics, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, three drivers alleged that the company maintained a “deliberate scheme to misclassify their truck drivers as independent contractors, thereby denying them the fundamental protections due to employees under California law.”

The suit alleges that in certain cases XPO Logistics failed to pay the minimum wage, failed to pay wages for missed meal and rest periods, and failed to reimburse business expenses as required, among other things.

Attorney Julie Gutman Dickinson told reporters on a conference call that XPO Logistics had faced litigation before, including class-action suits, along with regulatory action but “continues to misclassify workers and flout California labor laws.”

XPO Logistics said that “we know the vast majority of drivers want to maintain their independence as contractors. We’ll continue to defend this business model.”

XPO, based in Greenwich, Conn., operates 1,455 locations in 32 countries and had $15.4 billion in revenue last year.

Online Edition

A lawsuit was filed this week alleging that Southern California units of port trucking firm XPO Logistics Inc. improperly classified drivers as independent contractors rather than employees, depriving them of wages and benefits.

The suit, which seeks class-action status on behalf of about 160 or more drivers, was the latest step in a long dispute between some drivers and trucking firms that operate at the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Feb 19, 2018

Wilmington railyard promises rewards, but Long Beach neighbors still see a polluter

Online EDition

The fate of a planned $500 million railyard next to a low-income West Long Beach neighborhood is finally coming to a head, with lawyers on both sides of a lawsuit over the project appealing to the California Supreme Court.

For decades Warren Buffett’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co. has set its sights on a massive railyard in West Long Beach where cargo boxes from the nearby ports could be hitched onto a rail line that would deliver billions of dollars in goods across the country and shore up the company’s competitive edge.

Known as the the Southern California International Gateway project, the plan includes environmental perks, good-paying jobs and less pollution from cargo trucks, BNSF contends.

But Long Beach, air regulators, environmentalists and neighbors balked, contending in lawsuits filed in 2013 the 185-acre yard would actually worsen air quality. They say the project required more investigation in its environmental reports needed for approval, which the city of Los Angeles granted in 2013.

Now Long Beach, along with several other parties that originally filed suit to stop the yard, are trying to take their case to the state Supreme Court, where justices haven’t been shy in delving into the state’s notoriously stringent and complicated environmental laws.

“It’s utterly ridiculous,” said Evelyn Knight, an 84-year old resident who lives in West Long Beach. “I want them to fight this. I will continue to fight this because I care about my life and the life of those in the community and my relatives.”

The massive yard is expected to attract 1.5 million container trucks a year, about 5,500 semi-trucks daily and eight trains a day. Most big rigs are powered by diesel, the fumes that have been linked to asthma, decreased lung function in children and cancer.

“This railyard will be a magnate for dirty trucks and will increase the number of trucks,” Knight said. “Already you can’t get up and down the freeway because of all these trucks.”

Legal wrangling

Prospects for the yard seemed dim after a Superior Court judge in 2016 ordered the city of Los Angeles to set aside its environmental analysis needed to move forward, along with the proposed 50-year lease. But, last month a California appellate overruled that decision and gave both sides a partial victory.

A panel of three judges found the environmental reporting required under the California Environmental Quality Act was mostly met by BNSF with the exception of one point: how air pollution concentrations were determined. The narrower ruling, if left untouched, could force BNSF to revise their analysis, but it also cleared some of the most difficult hurdles, freeing the railroad giant of costly requirements to offset pollution.

“It’s problematic because without adequate mitigation measures, the residents of Long Beach’s westside are going to be inundated with noise and traffic problems,” said Michael Mais, Long Beach deputy city attorney.

The railyard would operate 24 hours, seven days a week. At full operation, roughly two million trucks annually would travel between the port and the facility 4 miles away, bringing an onslaught of barreling big rigs near homes and several schools.

The Los Angeles port and the rail industry looked hopeful that the most recent judgement would get them closer to building on the industrial stretch in Wilmington, on the border of Long Beach. Both released a statement after the ruling saying they were “pleased” with the judgement.

The port “stands by” the report’s “extensive and thorough analyses, as properly informing the public and decision-makers of the project’s effects under the California Environmental Quality Act,” Phillip Sanfield, the port spokesman stated. BNSF said they were weighing options.

Neither would comment further.

But the news was a blow for Long Beach and environmentalists on what they saw as one of the biggest flaws in the port’s and BNSF’s claim: that the new facility would take big rigs off the road by diverting them away from the 710 Freeway.

Truckers take that route on their way to the company’s Hobart facility in Commerce, one the largest intermodal yards in the United States. The environmental impact report done for BNSF and approved by Los Angeles stated no new traffic would be created on the 710 because of the diversion. And that would it lower overall pollution.

“That is simply factually not so,” said David Pettit, an attorney with the Natural Resource Defense Council who represents neighbors and other environmental groups.

Pettit and others have argued a second railyard would actually add more capacity and more diesel-powered, polluting trucks on the freeway.

The appeal court shot down that argument. And it’s one of the points that they are asking the Supreme Court to reconsider, along with how traffic and noise is assessed. It’s important because the more pollution that the railyard causes, the more the company must do to offset it, such as the use of electric-powered train engines and non diesel electric trucks.

So far, the company hasn’t offered enough concessions for any of the parties.

“Our clients want this project killed,” Pettit said.

But for BNSF, this project would be a windfall, allowing them to expand their extensive rail network.

“This is viewed as a national test case,” said Anthony Hatch, a railroad industry analyst.

At issue, he said, is whether a private railroad company can successfully overcome local and state environmental rules to build infrastructure that has a strategic importance for nation’s supply chain.

About 35 percent of the nation’s good are imported from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Of that a third are shipped out by rail, and officials hope that number will rise in the coming years. Both ports vowed to increase rail movement because it’s more efficient and is better for the environment.

But Hatch said if BNSF, a  premiere carrier, gets shot down, it will send a message to others looking to build capital intensive projects in the region.

“If they can’t do this, how are they going to do something else?” he asked rhetorically.

Online EDition

The fate of a planned $500 million railyard next to a low-income West Long Beach neighborhood is finally coming to a head, with lawyers on both sides of a lawsuit over the project appealing to the California Supreme Court.

Feb 19, 2018

710 Freeway may dedicate a lane for electric vehicles — and charge them while they travel

Online Edition

As part of a $6 billion widening of the 710 Freeway, a Metro committee is asking the transit agency to add a lane dedicated to electric vehicles — cars, buses and trucks — which would use wireless power transmission pads placed in the roadway to recharge their batteries as they travel.

While wireless charging is being used at transit yards, including in the Antelope Valley to power electric buses, the notion of a freeway lane embedded with devices that continuously recharge a moving vehicle’s battery pack would be a first in the United States.

“I think the technology exists or is about to exist, so we can have both long-haul trucks as well as cars be zero-emission,” Janice Hahn, county supervisor and board member for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority said Monday. “I believe the market will respond to Metro creating that policy.”

Hahn noted in a written statement that these so-called “rechargeable roadways” are under construction today in China, Israel and Norway. By the time the 19-mile, 710 Freeway improvement project, stretching from Long Beach to the 60 Freeway in East Los Angeles, is complete in 2040, such technology will be commonplace, Hahn said.

“It doesn’t make sense to invest $6 billion in widening the 710 Freeway without demanding we have a zero-emissions requirement to drive in these new lanes,” she said in an interview.

Daimler AG and Tesla have built long-haul electric trucks, as has the Playa Vista company Chanje. Hahn said Monday she plans to set up a meeting with Tesla CEO Elon Musk “to see if this piques his interest,” adding: “If not a rechargeable lane, then we can find out what else is out there.”

It has taken 15 years of study and community meetings for Metro to consider a specific project design. Last week, Hahn amended what is known as “staff project design 5C,” which basically adds a lane in each direction and provides truck bypass lanes at the 405 Freeway juncture.

The changes bolster the clean-air components, requiring Metro to not just improve traffic flow but address the detrimental health impacts on nearby residents from diesel pollution spewed from trucks leaving the Port of Long Beach.

“I am very familiar with this ‘diesel death zone‘ that has characterized this freight corridor,” she said, referring to higher risks of lung disease and cancer from diesel tailpipe exhaust and fine particulates from truck tires and brake pad residue affecting such communities as Wilmington, San Pedro, Long Beach, Bell Gardens, Bell, Maywood, Cudahy, Compton, Paramount and East Los Angeles

“Our community should no longer suffer health risks so somebody in Kansas can get a flat screen TV,” she said.

Hahn’s motion received full support of the five-member Metro’s Ad Hoc Congestion, Highway and Roads Committee, which she chairs. The motion comes before the full, 13-member Metro board on March 1.

The committee did not support a different approach, labeled “Alternative 7,” which would separate trucks from cars on an elevated, truck-only roadway. This design costs almost twice as much as the design the committee endorsed, or about $10 billion, said Metro. So far, Metro has about $1.09 billion for the project.

In addition to a dedicated recharging lane, the committee wants:

An increase from $100 million to $200 million spent on developing the electric roadway technology, along with incentivizing trucking companies to ditch diesel trucks and buy electric trucks or other forms of zero-emission vehicles.

To convene a working group for developing more zero-emission trucks and also rechargeable freeway lanes with the California Air Resources Board, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the California Transportation Commission, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and others.

Online Edition

As part of a $6 billion widening of the 710 Freeway, a Metro committee is asking the transit agency to add a lane dedicated to electric vehicles — cars, buses and trucks — which would use wireless power transmission pads placed in the roadway to recharge their batteries as they travel.

Feb 21, 2018

Long Beach leaders to hold hearings on ‘trucking crisis’ at local port

Online Edition

 

Long Beach leaders agreed to hold hearings and support efforts to stop what Mayor Robert Garcia called “exploitative working conditions” for truck drivers at the local port.

Both Long Beach and Los Angeles, home to the busiest port complex, have been grappling with how to stop companies from using port truck drivers as independent contractors when they are employees.

“Exploitative working conditions have led to significant labor unrest among port drivers protesting their misclassification,’ Garcia wrote in a letter to the council. “Such labor disruption risks making the Port uncompetitive and harming our reputation with our customers.”

The council approved a measure Tuesday, authored by Garcia, to back federal and state legislation that would improve port truckers’ working conditions, support regulatory enforcement and hold hearings on the “trucking crisis.” It will also consider providing $700,000 for wage theft education.

Big rig drivers who haul billions in consumer goods from the ports annually have complained for years about not receiving the benefits of employment. The current model, they say, can leave them in debt, despite long hours of work.

Trucking companies, meanwhile, say the system is legal and many drivers enjoy the flexibility.

“Hopefully, this process will be handled in a fair and balanced manner that invites industry to the table and finally shows that our industry provides a great opportunity for both company and independent contractor drivers,” said Weston LaBar, head of Harbor Trucking Association, representing more than 100 trucking companies.

The California Labor Commissioner has received hundreds of complaints regarding the misclassification of port truckers and has awarded more than $35 million in back wages and penalties. Backed by the Teamster’s union, drivers have staged 15 strikes over four years at the port to protest conditions.

“There is no need for additional studies and investigations. These companies are breaking the law and failure to take action will only lead to more disruption at the Port of Long Beach,” said Louie Diaz, vice president of Local 848 Teamsters, representing 500 port truck drivers.

Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer last month filed lawsuits against three major port trucking companies he said relegated many of the drivers to poverty.

Online Edition

 

Long Beach leaders agreed to hold hearings and support efforts to stop what Mayor Robert Garcia called “exploitative working conditions” for truck drivers at the local port.

Both Long Beach and Los Angeles, home to the busiest port complex, have been grappling with how to stop companies from using port truck drivers as independent contractors when they are employees.

Feb 12, 2018

Why the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles expect to be even busier in 2018

Online Edition

The National Retail Federation is predicting imports will be up 4.9 percent in the first half of this year, which could mean even more shipments hitting the roads and rails of Southern California.

Consumer confidence, higher employment and tax reform are factors in the need to bring more products to the ports, according to Jonathan Gold, the federation’s supply chain expert.

The region’s twin ports are already shattering records.

The Port of Los Angeles moved 9,343,192 twenty-foot equivalent units or TEUs in 2017, the most in its 110-year history and a 5.5 percent increase over 2016, according to a news release.

Last year was the busiest year in the Port of Long Beach’s 107-year history; it moved 7.54 million TEUs. And traffic in January hit 657,830 TEUs, up 12.9 percent from the prior year.

The NRF prediction is in line with the port’s expectations, spokesman Lee Peterson said in a phone interview.

“Even if it only goes up 3 percent, it will be another record,” he said.

Peterson said the way Lunar New Year makes forecasts difficult to pin down until the holiday passes. It’s a major holiday in Asian countries that export goods to the United States, which causes a rush to make shipments before the holiday and a lull during the celebration.

It will make its annual “Pulse of the Ports Peak Season Forecast”  7:30-11 a.m. March 28 in the Long Beach Convention Center.

A panel of supply chain experts will weigh in on whether the San Pedro Bay Gateway is ready for peak shipping season, which begins in summer in advance of year-end holidays.

It will include Mario O. Moreno, senior economist with maritime research and consulting company Drewry; Anthony Otto, president of Long Beach Container Terminal; Steve Gonzales of Plastic Express; Mike Burns of Big Lots; and Beth F. Whited of Union Pacific Railroad.

There will be a live webcast at 9 a.m.

The ports have a huge economic impact on Southern California. Los Angeles claims to create 517,000 jobs in five counties. Long Beach claims to support 316,000 jobs in the region.

Many of those jobs are in the Inland Empire, due to its warehousing and truck drivers who live there.

 

Online Edition

The National Retail Federation is predicting imports will be up 4.9 percent in the first half of this year, which could mean even more shipments hitting the roads and rails of Southern California.

Consumer confidence, higher employment and tax reform are factors in the need to bring more products to the ports, according to Jonathan Gold, the federation’s supply chain expert.

The region’s twin ports are already shattering records.

Jan 11, 2018

Death of the American Trucker

Print Edition

When Donald Trump sidles up to a semi truck, he's usually selling policy only a plutocrat could love. Campaigning to repeal the Affordable Care Act in March, Trump pinned an iTrucks button to his lapel and honked the horn of a Mack truck outside the White House. "Obamacare," he said, "has inflicted great pain on American truckers." In October, at a rally before the "proud men and women of the American Trucking Associations" in Pennsylvania, Trump touted GOP plans to slash corporate taxes by 40 percent and to end "the crushing, horrible and unfair estate tax." Behind him, positioned for the TV cameras, was an 18-wheeler – emblazoned with an unlikely slogan: truckers for tax reform. He vowed his America First agenda "means putting American truckers first."

In his stagecraft, Trump puts truckers on a pedestal. Behind the scenes, his administration is seeking to hasten a revolution in robotic driving that poses an existential threat to their livelihoods. We're at the dawn of the self-driving truck. The technology will benefit most Americans: Ever-alert robotic semis promise safer highways, reduced emissions, faster ship times and, for the 70 percent of goods that travel by truck, lower costs. Yet this same revolution threatens every single job in heavy trucking – 1.7 million in all, according to a White House analysis published in the final days of the Obama administration. Truckers earn $60 billion in annual wages. And trucking is now the most common profession in 29 states, according to an NPR analysis of census data, including the Rust Belt trio of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania that put Trump into office.

Ultimately, automated driving could offer a dark replay of the decline of factory work. In Trump's misdiagnosis, "disastrous trade deals" undermined American manufacturing jobs. But the true culprit is not cheap Chinese labor as much as it's robots here at home. From 2000 to 2010, output from American factories soared, but manufacturers slashed 5.6 million jobs, with automation and other tech advances driving 88 percent of those layoffs, according to research from Ball State University.

Full automation of our highways might take decades – lessening the blow to today's drivers. But there's a gold rush on to disrupt the $700 billion American trucking industry. A report by the International Transport Forum projects a scenario in which roughly 1 million heavy-truck drivers lose their jobs by 2025. McKinsey Global Institute offers an even more dramatic possibility: 85 percent automation, or nearly 1.5 million jobs lost, by 2027. At that pace, the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress need to begin backing aggressive policies to support displaced truckers. But in its first year, the Trump administration has sided with the automators: Trump's short-lived business advisory council was stocked with CEOs pushing the envelope of robotic trucking, including Uber and Tesla. Trump's tax plan offers big breaks for investment in automation. And Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has vowed the administration will be "a catalyst" for a driverless future. It is a revealing betrayal, exposing rot at the core of Trump's promises to "make America great again." Far from putting the country's forgotten workers in the driver's seat, Trump's administration threatens to make them economic roadkill.

This is a dangerous political game for the president, whose link to trucking runs deeper than the half-million MAGA trucker hats reportedly sold by his campaign. Truckers are Trump's people: 95 percent lack a college education; more than 90 percent are men; three out of four are white. This demographic voted for the president at a 71 percent clip. "Anyone who has paid attention to the last two years of our politics knows you can't ignore millions of workers' voices," says Sam Loesche, the legislative representative for the Teamsters union. "Or you do so at your own peril."

Robotic trucking may go down easy – at first. Market-ready tech offers semiautonomous cruise control and other advances to ease the work burden on truckers, without making them redundant. But the slippery slope of automation leads to a cliff: Trucks with no role – or room – for a human. Eventually, "none of the new trucks will have a cab on them," predicted Anthony Levandowski, Uber's former star automation engineer, in 2016. "It just doesn't make sense to have that."

Heavy trucking has emerged as an unexpected hotbed of innovation. In November, Tesla founder Elon Musk stood before hundreds of superfans at an airport hangar next to his SpaceX headquarters outside Los Angeles. Wearing jeans and a barn jacket, Musk unveiled his long-haul electric rig: the Tesla Semi, featuring phenomenal acceleration, bulletlike aerodynamics (less drag than a Bugatti Chiron roadster) and a 500-mile range. The truck "will be running on sunlight," Musk said in his lilting South African accent, describing the Semi's 30-minute recharging time at a planned network of solar-powered "megachargers."

The Tesla Semi is also automation-ready. It incorporates "Enhanced Autopilot" technology already at work in Tesla's cars. Relying on radar and an elaborate system of cameras mounted about the rig, the Semi will robotically follow the speed of traffic, maintain and change lanes, and even come to a controlled stop should the driver fall asleep or become incapacitated. An animation projected behind Musk teased the Semi's convoy capability, where a lead Semi with a human driver is followed by a pair of self-driving trucks. "You're more like a train driver," Musk said. Called "platooning" by competitors, this technology synchronizes the human smarts and intuition of a lead driver with the steering, acceleration and braking of the autonomous trailing trucks. "This is something we can do today, 10 times safer than a human driver," Musk said. "I want to be clear: This is something we can do now!"

The first Tesla Semis will not roll off the production line until 2019. (PepsiCo, Anheuser-Busch and Walmart, among others, have reserved nearly 300 trucks.) But platooning is already being road-tested by industry giants including Volvo and Daimler. In a diesel scenario, platooning also offers big fuel savings even for manned trucks; each trailing rig uses 10 percent less fuel. But with advances in autonomy, trucking companies will be able to shed costly drivers, until even the lead vehicle in a virtual train of autonomous semis is piloting itself by artificial intelligence. A software engineer working for Daimler tells Rolling Stone that employment for truck drivers in a world of platooning will soon get Darwinian: "It's adapt or die."

Truly driverless truck technology has already made a great leap from the test track to the open roadway. On a chilly night in October 2016, an Uber subsidiary called Otto dispatched an automated rig with all-American cargo: 2,000 cases of Budweiser. The robotic truck hauled 120 miles south along the base of the Rockies from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs, navigating a tricky curve by Denver's Mile High stadium without its trailer drifting from the lane. The only human on board, a sandy-haired driver named Walter, sat in the cab's sleeper berth. Radar, cameras and GPS systems mounted about the airfoil and bumper – combined with lidar, a technology that creates a view of the road with reflected lasers – fed a torrent of data to an on-board computer, guiding the AI autopilot through each decision: accelerating and braking, turning, changing lanes.

A police convoy accompanied the predawn run, but the ride went off without a hitch. When it was time to exit the freeway, Walter took the controls and finished the drive to the distribution center. Dan Murray, vice president of the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI), who observed the Otto run, says, "The technology is almost ready for prime time."

Otto was the brainchild of Levandowski, a former top engineer of Google's self-driving-car unit, who early on saw the disruptive potential in trucking. City traffic can bedevil AI driving systems – does the waving cyclist want the vehicle to slow down or to speed up and go around? But highway driving is as much as 50 times simpler. "It's really silly to have a person steering a truck for eight hours just to keep it between two lines on the highway," Levandowski told reporters at Otto's launch.

In his race to market, Levandowski didn't attempt to build a brand-new semi. Instead, he created an aftermarket kit to automate existing diesel trucks. His dirty-fast-and-first ethos was a cultural fit for Uber, which bought Otto for $680 million in August 2016. But Levandowski and Uber have since landed in legal jeopardy. Google's self-driving unit Waymo has sued Uber, estimating damages at $1.9 billion – alleging Levandowski stole lidar technology when he left the company. Levandowski has pleaded the Fifth in court, and Uber has been humbled by a cascade of legal and sexual scandals leading to the ouster of CEO Travis Kalanick.

The industry's jack rabbit may have stumbled, but competitors are surging ahead. Embark is a Silicon Valley startup founded in 2016 by Alex Rodrigues, a 22-year-old with blue eyes and a shock of black hair, who built his first automated robot as a 13-year-old wunderkind. Embark includes a military-grade GPS that could enable driving in low-visibility conditions. In November, Embark announced it had begun shipping refrigerators as far as 650 miles – from El Paso, Texas, to Palm Springs, California – "the longest automated freight route in the world today," according to Rodrigues.

In Embark's business model, long-haul highway robots work in concert with local drivers at either end of a route. These humans act like harbor pilots – ferrying trailers from a staging area by the freeway's edge to the warehouse or box store and back. For now, a human driver sits behind the wheel of Embark's trucks as a fail-safe. But Rodrigues insists his goal is "a fully autonomous truck."

There's already stiff competition. In China, a startup called TuSimple is striving to introduce road-safe autonomous semis by 2020. In Sweden, Volvo has been putting a new robotic truck through the paces in the dark twists and turns of an underground mine. Mining, in fact, is the clearest place to see where heavy trucking is headed. In 2016, Rio Tinto deployed dozens of autonomous trucks – each the size of a small house – to haul iron ore in Australia. The rigs run 24 hours a day, with no breaks, and eliminate minor human errors that slow production. "We're going to continue as aggressively as possible down this path," Rio Tinto's productivity chief told MIT Technology Review. The trucks in the mine today still have cabs, but Rio Tinto's supplier, Komatsu, showcased a new line of Autonomous Haulage Vehicles last year in Las Vegas – with no place for any driver.

The race to automate our highways could be good for the nation as a whole – increasing productivity, sparking GDP growth and raising living standards. "At an economy level, we'd like automation to happen as quickly as possible," says Victor Bennett, a Duke economist and lead author of the Obama White House study on automation. "But that's really difficult for people whose jobs are in trucking."

At the lunch counter of a Country Pride restaurant in Troutdale, Oregon – inside a truck stop by Interstate 84, connecting Portland to Salt Lake City – I meet Louis Pribble, who has been driving trucks since 1987. The shaggy-haired Pribble, 52, sports a Bone Collector camo hunting cap. His red T-shirt has a silkscreen of a bullet and the slogan SHARE A ROUND WITH ISIS.

Like the drivers of dozens of rigs in the parking lot, Pribble is idled here on this drizzly afternoon for a federally mandated rest. These long breaks are a key drag on the economics of trucking that innovators hope to disrupt. If robots are doing the driving, says Murray of ATRI, "suddenly the mandate that 10 hours off is required for fatigue management and safety – it has nothing to do with that anymore." Embark recently persuaded Peterbilt to add enough diesel capacity on test trucks to run 48 hours straight. And that's not an upper limit. "When you no longer need a driver in the cab, there's all this room where you potentially can add fuel capacity," Embark chief operating officer Mike Reid says. "That voids the need for having to pull over to refuel the truck."

Pribble drives "all 48" contiguous states, running 12,000 miles a month in a 2016 Volvo, delivering packaged meals to grocery stores, and he makes decent money – up to $5,500 a month. In an America of stagnant annual wages, trucking is a rare bright spot, rising 5.7 percent last year to more than $52,000, according to Glassdoor. With his disposable income, Pribble collects abstract art created by drummer Steven Adler of Guns N' Roses – "my retirement account," Pribble jokes. And he had recently splurged on a test-track drive of a Lamborghini at a facility across from a truck stop in Las Vegas. Pribble spends his downtime playing Xbox in his cab and his off days at golf courses across the country. He's cycled out of trucking in the past, he says, but found it impossible to get ahead working in his hometown of Hermiston, Oregon: "Last job I had, it took two and a half weeks of work to just make a pickup payment." Trucking, he says, is "better money than any other job out there."

The wage premium for truckers compensates for work that is taxing, tedious and not infrequently deadly. According to the Department of Labor, heavy-truckers "have one of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses of all occupations" – about three times the average worker – owing to long hours, sedentary time behind the wheel, road accidents, and dangerous tasks around the truck, like securing cargo. Trucking is America's deadliest job in pure numbers – 745 fatalities in 2015 – and deadlier on average than even electrical power-line work. It's also lonely. Pribble sees his girlfriend back home only a few days a month. "It's hard on both people," he admits.

Pribble is a Trump supporter, culturally and economically. He's angry that Hermiston is, in his words, "full of illegal Mexicans." He bristles at regulation of the truck industry and loves Trump's proposal to cut two regulations for every new one put in place. Above all, Pribble is confident the president will bring jobs roaring back in America. "Trump is trying to keep his promises," he tells me.

When it comes to the threat of automation, Pribble is skeptical that a robot will soon take his job away. "Everybody is all worked up about it," he says, but Pribble thinks the boy wonders of Silicon Valley have yet to grapple with down-and-dirty parts of his job. "I'd like to see that driverless truck put chains on," he says with a laugh. "I'd like to see that driverless truck in snow." Maybe younger guys should think twice about a career in trucking, he concedes. As for him? "By the time we get to the George Jetson era, I'll be long retired," he says. "Probably dead."

Next to bad weather – snow can blind laser and optical sensors – the greatest technical hurdle to deploying autonomous trucks is the complexity of urban driving. But Kyle Vogt, the head of Cruise, GM's self-driving-car unit, has been testing a fleet of autonomous Chevy Bolts on the streets of San Francisco and will soon tackle New York. Vogt recently posted a video of a Cruise car autonomously navigating a notorious six-way San Francisco intersection – with the traffic signal out. "Self-driving cars have 360-degree vision – there's no blind spots," Vogt says. "They're looking everywhere, all the time. And able to process complex scenes at a much higher rate than a human could."

There are also regulatory, social and security hurdles. The U.S. now has a patchwork of state regulation – where any exists – controlling the deployment of autonomous trucks. The Otto beer run in Colorado would have been prohibited in Ohio, where a human is required to remain in the driver's seat. And while automation promises to eliminate human error, no one is sure who pays for an automated crash – particularly in the transitional phase, where a human still sits inside the cab. "What happens if a driver is supposed to take control in a split second, and for whatever reason there's a crash?" asks Lamont Byrd, the Teamsters' safety and health department director. "That hasn't been worked out." Terrorists have killed dozens of civilians in New York, Barcelona and Nice by weaponizing trucks. "Imagine three vehicles controlled by a guy with a laptop halfway around the world," says Loesche, the Teamsters' legislative representative. "Those are monster, monster hurdles – especially in D.C." Finally, even if self-driving vehicles are proved safer as a matter of statistics, they may not feel safer to fellow drivers on the road. "Driving next to any car or truck, and not seeing a human in it," says Murray, "is certainly going to freak out Grandma."

But none of these obstacles are likely to keep truckers from becoming the new coal miners. The gut punch of job loss will be heightened by a decline in next-job wages. Truckers "currently enjoy a wage premium over others in the labor market with the same level of educational attainment," the 2016 White House report says, and are unlikely to "regain this wage premium if displaced." The traditional fallback for a trucker – another driving job – will also be vanishing in this revolution. Uber, to name one example, signed a pledge to buy 24,000 self-driving SUVs from Volvo. More than 3.7 million Americans make a living behind the wheel, and 3.1 million of those jobs are at risk. A report by Goldman Sachs found that when autonomous vehicles reach peak deployment, 25,000 drivers a month will be out of work. And that flood of unemployed drivers, says Bennett, the Duke economist, would also "push down the wages of other low-wage jobs."

Trump has shown little concern for this threat to truckers. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin insisted in a March 2017 interview that job loss from automation is "not even on our radar screen," adding, "I'm not worried at all." Meanwhile, Trump's budget outline aims to slash the Labor Department by more than 20 percent, including deep cuts to job-training grants that might help drivers laid off for robots.

At the Transportation Department, the Trump administration is championing automation in driving. "I want to issue a challenge to Silicon Valley, Detroit and all other auto-industry hubs to step up and help educate a skeptical public about the benefits of automated technologies," Secretary Chao told the National Governors Association conference in 2017. She was met with unexpected resistance from Republicans in attendance. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder pressed Chao to look "far enough ahead so we don't create job-loss opportunities." Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker was more blunt: "I can't urge you enough – autonomous vehicles have tremendous opportunity, but at the same time there are some big-time workforce issues," adding the administration should take policy steps now to avoid "a tremendous amount of economic hardship along the way."

Chao validated the governors' worries: "As a former secretary of labor, I'm very, very concerned about that," she said. "We do have to transition people." (Chao declined to comment.) But even under Democratic administrations, America has a bleak history of retraining blue-collar workers. Factory workers pushed out of $25-an-hour jobs with generous benefits often can only find service-sector jobs that pay half as much. Dislocation has created a loss of purpose – death rates among middle-aged white men have risen, largely due to suicide and substance abuse. Ironically, argues Arthur Brooks, president of conservative think tank AEI, it is this "dignity gap" that Trump exploited to win the White House.

Washington's lack of interest in policy solutions is ceding the arena to icons of tech and local government. Bill Gates has called for taxing robots to generate revenues equivalent to the taxes paid by displaced humans – funds to be invested in subsidizing labor where automation is less useful. Musk has called for a universal basic income to offset the sting of automation. "It's going to be necessary," he advised the World Government Summit in Dubai. In an interview with Rolling Stone, California Gov. Jerry Brown agreed: "Income assistance is something that needs to be looked at carefully. . . . We need to get at it sooner rather than later."

Other interventions could include auctioning permits for self-driving vehicles to slow adoption. Or levying a vehicle mileage tax to capture social costs of driver displacement; Americans would still get cheaper goods, just not at the expense of human drivers. "What we'd like very much is to not have to make a trade-off between 300 million people getting lower prices and safer roads and 3 million people losing their jobs," says Bennett. "The question is: Is there a way to not make that trade-off?"

 

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Jan 29, 2018

City Mulling Whether To Appeal BNSF Rail Project To State Supreme Court

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After the California Court of Appeal overturned the majority of a trial court’s earlier findings that the environmental impact report (EIR) for a new rail facility proposed by BNSF Railway was largely insufficient, appellants – including the City of Long Beach – are considering whether to take the matter to the California Supreme Court.

The Court of Appeal ruled on January 12 that the EIR for BNSF’s Southern California International Gateway Project, a $500 million proposed intermodal railyard adjacent to Westside Long Beach and harbor communities, was sufficient, with one exception. The EIR “fails to adequately consider air quality impacts of the project, particularly impacts to ambient air pollutant concentrations and cumulative impacts of such pollutant concentrations,” the court decision states. A trial court’s earlier ruling that identified other deficiencies in the EIR, including insufficient analysis of traffic noise impacts, was tossed out.

The project was originally protested in court by appellants including the City of Long Beach, the Long Beach Unified School District, community groups and businesses that would be displaced by the project. They argued that much of the EIR was insufficient and would negatively impact surrounding communities. The project was defended both by BNSF and the City of Los Angeles, who presented the project as a jobs creator and supply chain efficiency strategy.

Mike Mais, assistant city attorney for Long Beach who has been working on the case, said that the ruling does not mean the project has a green light to move forward. The EIR must be revised to address the Court of Appeal’s finding, he explained. “It would be necessary to do additional studies and mitigation measures on air quality, which was one of the big issues that we all had primarily because of the [nearby] schools and the residents,” he said.

Mais has spoken with other parties opposed to the project, but no decisions have been made about whether or not to bring the matter before the California Supreme Court. According to City Attorney Charles Parkin, the matter will be addressed in a closed session meeting of the Long Beach City Council on February 6, at which time the council may direct the city attorney’s staff to pursue the case further.

BNSF provided the following statement from Roger Nober, chief legal officer and executive vice president of law and corporate affairs: “We are pleased that the court has reversed the lower court ruling, correctly applied the law and maintained the existing scope of CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act]. We are currently reviewing the ruling and will coordinate with the Port of Los Angeles regarding next steps.”

Print Edition

After the California Court of Appeal overturned the majority of a trial court’s earlier findings that the environmental impact report (EIR) for a new rail facility proposed by BNSF Railway was largely insufficient, appellants – including the City of Long Beach – are considering whether to take the matter to the California Supreme Court.