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.”

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.” 

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