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Robot Cars Are Causing 911 False Alarms in San Francisco

For some residents of San Francisco, the robotic future of driving is just a tap away. Ride-hailing services from GM subsidiary Cruise and Alphabet company Waymo allow them to summon a driverless ride with an app. But some riders have become perhaps too comfortable with the technology.

In a letter filed with a California regulator yesterday, city agencies complained that on three separate occasions since December, Cruise staff called 911 after a passenger in one of its driverless vehicles became “unresponsive” to the two-way voice link installed in each car. Each time, police and firefighters rushed to the scene but found the same thing: a passenger who had fallen asleep in their robot ride.

The agencies’ letter complains that the incidents wasted public money and potentially diverted resources from people truly in need. “Taxpayer funded emergency response resources used for nonemergencies undermine their availability to members of the public in true nee[d],” wrote the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, and the Mayor’s Office on Disability.

The letter was one of a series sent to the California Public Utilities Commission this week by transportation officials in San Francisco and Los Angeles seeking to pump the brakes on Cruise and Waymo’s requests to expand their paid robotaxi services in both cities. The cities say they’re worried the technology isn’t ready. And they want the companies to be required to share more data about the performance of their cars, and meet specific benchmarks, before service can be expanded.

The San Francisco agencies cite a number of unsettling and previously unreported incidents, including the false alarms over snoozing riders and two incidents in which self-driving vehicles from Cruise appear to have impeded firefighters from doing their jobs. 

One incident occurred in June of last year, a few days after the state gave Cruise permission to pick up paying passengers in the city. One of the company’s robotaxis ran over a fire hose in use at an active fire scene, the agencies’ letter says, an action that “can seriously injure firefighters.”

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In the second incident, just last week, the city says firefighters attending a major fire in the Western Addition neighborhood saw a driverless Cruise vehicle approaching. They “made efforts to prevent the Cruise AV from driving over their hoses and were not able to do so until they shattered a front window of the Cruise AV,” the San Francisco agencies wrote in their letter. 

San Francisco Fire Department spokesperson Jonathan Baxter confirmed that the two incidents occurred. He says that in the most recent it took approximately two minutes for the autonomous vehicle to stop, and that the department is in touch with Cruise about both encounters with firefighters. Cruise spokesperson Hannah Lindow says the vehicle was stationary by the time a firefighter broke its glass. WIRED previously reported that a Cruise vehicle blocked one of the department’s fire engines on the way to a major blaze for roughly 25 seconds last spring.

Lindow says that some data Cruise provides to regulators must be kept private for customer safety, and to protect “proprietary information.” She wrote in a statement that the company has “driven millions of miles in an extremely complex urban environment with zero life-threatening injuries or fatalities.”

In response to a question about the San Francisco agencies accusing Cruise of wasting emergency resources over sleeping passengers, she wrote that “Suggesting that Cruise shouldn’t err on the side of caution to ensure that passengers who are unresponsive are safe is something we strongly disagree with.”

There are no federal laws governing the testing or deployment of self-driving cars on public roads in the US, although National Highway Traffic Safety Administration oversight of vehicle safety and design includes the power to recall vehicles or their software. Some states have come up with their own rules for the technology, and California has long been a hot spot for both driverless testing and policymaking.

In California, permission to test or deploy a self-driving car is granted by the Department of Motor Vehicles and authorization to use those cars as fare-collecting robotaxis by the Public Utilities Commission. This leaves cities with little control over the autonomous vehicles plying their streets. In the letters, San Francisco and Los Angeles transportation officials ask the state to require companies with robotaxi services to make certain data public, including the number of miles traveled and counts of unexpected or unplanned stops. The cities also suggest companies be required to meet specific performance standards before they can expand.

Cruise began to test completely driverless cars in San Francisco in 2021, and last year it launched a nighttime-only robotic ride-hailing service in a portion of the city. It is now asking the state of California to approve an expansion that would allow its vehicles to pick up paying passengers on most roads in San Francisco. The company also wants to increase its fleet from the current 30 vehicles to at least 100. Cruise launched driverless taxi services in Phoenix, Arizona, and Austin, Texas, late last year.

Waymo only received permission to pick up passengers in its driverless taxis in California last November, but it has operated a driverless car service in Phoenix since 2020. The company has asked California regulators to allow its driverless cars to pick up paying San Francisco passengers 24/7 throughout the city. It announced in October that it would begin testing its driverless cars in Los Angeles with an eye to eventually launching service there too. Waymo and Cruise both invite members of the public to join waitlists for access their ride hail services.

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This week's filings with the Public Utilities Commission show how even the embryonic robot ride-hailing services in San Francisco can disrupt traffic. San Francisco agencies say they tracked 92 incidents between late May and the end of December last year in which Cruise autonomous vehicles made unexpected or unplanned stops in travel lanes. Most were on roads where city buses, light rail, and streetcars operate.

The city says those stops have created traffic jams in disparate areas and caused human drivers to make abrupt maneuvers of their own, suddenly changing lanes; braking; accelerating; or veering into bike lanes, sidewalks, or crosswalks. Disruptive autonomous stops have also affected public transit, the city says, pointing to at least six incidents in which stalled Cruise vehicles delayed transit vehicles, in one case by 21 minutes.

Last summer, WIRED reported that two fleetwide outages had caused Cruise vehicles to freeze on public roads and that a Cruise employee had anonymously sent a letter to the Public Utilities Commission alleging that the company’s vehicles weren’t prepared to operate on public roads. In December, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it had opened a probe into incidents of Cruise vehicles blocking traffic and reports of the cars “inappropriately hard braking.” Cruise has said that for its vehicles, stopping and turning on hazard lights is sometimes the safest way to react to unexpected street conditions.

The San Francisco agencies said they had seen fewer reports of incidents involving driverless Waymo vehicles than Cruise ones but did not provide specific numbers. They note that the discrepancy may be because driverless Waymo cars have driven fewer miles in San Francisco—or because their technology is superior. 

Whatever the underlying reason, Waymo vehicles are not perfect. This week, one got stuck in what a company spokesperson told SFGATE was a “very complex and busy intersection,” holding up traffic in the middle of rush hour. In a separate incident this month, an Instagram user captured footage of a driverless Waymo vehicle encroaching on a construction site. 

Waymo spokesperson Katherine Barna did not respond to a question about the number of San Francisco incidents involving the company’s self-driving cars but called them “infrequent … relative to the amount of miles we’ve driven autonomously on public roads.” She says the company has declined to disclose data that might compromise its trade secrets. “We look forward to discussing these issues through our continued partnership with public stakeholders,” Barna says.

City transportation officials don’t seem to think that robotaxis are always bad news. The letters filed this week cite the technology's potential to make city streets safer and give those who can’t or don’t drive new freedom to explore, work, or go to school.

Transportation officials seem particularly interested in the robotaxis’ potential to supplement their cities’ frustratingly small supply of wheelchair-accessible vehicles. Waymo says it is working to develop an autonomous vehicle for people who use wheelchairs, and Cruise says it’s building a wheelchair-accessible version of a purpose-built robotaxi called the Origin that’s set to make its debut this year. The commendation comes with a caveat: The cities want to see the data on trips provided to disabled users too.

Updated 1-26-2023, 7:35 pm ET: This article has been updated with additional comment from Cruise received after publication.

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