The self-driving future has arrived in San Francisco. And, increasingly and all too often, it looks like a confounded cop, road flare in hand, commanding a wayward autonomous vehicle as if it were a misbehaving, two-ton puppy.
“No!” shouts the cop, as captured in his body-worn camera footage. “You stay!”
The incident occurred on Feb. 9, during one of San Francisco’s more memorable recent emergencies: A dollar-store Walter White apparently lost control of his Sunset District garage dope factory, resulting in a lethal explosion and fire. The normally sedate neighborhood in the vicinity of 21st Avenue and Noriega Street was instantly transformed into both a disaster scene and a crime scene.
And, to make it a truly San Francisco scene, a driverless Waymo vehicle subsequently proceeded to meander into the middle of things, like an autonomous Mr. Magoo.
“It doesn’t know what to do!” shouts an officer caught in the background of the body-worn camera footage. “I’ll pop a flare!” responds the cop wearing the camera. “There’ll be hella smoke in the front.”
He then commands the vehicle to “stay,” and places a flare in front of it. But it does not obey, hella smoke and all (“ah, fuck!”).
“Got a bit of a pickle,” he radios to a dispatcher. “Got an autonomous vehicle, the Waymo, it’s inching slowly and closely to one of the main water lines that the SF Fire just charged. Can’t run it over. Is there a way you can contact a responder to come out and disable this vehicle? I don’t trust this AI.”
The cops eventually get the car shifted into “park” in the middle of the intersection. The officer, evidently a very positive person, makes the most of the situation. Taking a look at the autonomous Jaguar SUV that couldn’t recognize a fire hose and didn’t stop even after he ignited a road flare, he tells his cop buddies, “You know what? It worked out. Now, it’s like a barricade.”
And, to himself: “Self-driving. It’s where we’re at now. Technology.”
Asked for comment on their vehicles’ incursions into emergency scenes, Waymo provided this lengthy response.
Cruise wrote, “We are constantly improving our technology, and have a great relationship with the San Francisco Fire Department and other city stakeholders as we have deployed and expanded our service. We’re proud of our safety record and remain committed to doing everything possible to make roads safer.”
The “great relationship” part is probably true; fire officials who’ve worked with the autonomous vehicle companies had nice things to say about their representatives. But not about their vehicles.
“They’ve made every effort to work with us in public safety measures and be a good partner,” said one. “But they do not have a good product.”
Driverless Cruise and Waymo vehicles whirring through town have rapidly shifted from a novelty to a ubiquitous feature of San Francisco living. You’ve probably noticed this. Your emergency responders most certainly have, and their initial laughter at the cars’ antics has long since given way to irritation and trepidation.
Mission Local has obtained some 15 Fire Department incident reports documenting dangerous and/or nuisance situations in which Waymo or Cruise vehicles interfered with fire vehicles or emergency scenes. The vast majority of these reported incidents occurred in recent months, and a majority took place in April (driverless cars were only in December given the green light by the state to traverse San Francisco 24/7).
These incidents are either happening more regularly or being documented more regularly — or both. Within the marginalia of reports written last week, fire department officials complain that driverless car incursions are now a “daily occurrence.” This does not appear to be an overstatement: The notes on an April 26 report state, “This is an increasing problem. I believe there are many more incidents that are not being reported.” A subsequent note states “Number 3 today!”
“Before, you only used to have these things operating after 2 a.m. There’s not so much traffic; you go around them. It was funny then,” says a veteran firefighter. “Now they’re out in the daytime.”
This fireman’s observations jibed with observations from others Mission Local spoke to and with incidents documented in reports. Automated vehicles, he said, react strangely to flashing lights and sirens: “They just stop dead in the middle of the road. They freeze. I liken it to a deer in the headlights.”
And that gets to the heart of the problem right now. While computerized drivers are all but certainly more technically proficient than a human driver, the cars rolling around San Francisco currently can behave erratically, and in non-intuitive ways that throw emergency responders off.
“I shouldn’t have to look over my shoulder for a car trying to pierce a public safety scene that’s already been cordoned off,” says a longtime San Francisco firefighter. “This is happening more and more. Those cars can be relentless.”
That was clearly the case in late January on the 1300 block of Hayes Street. A firefighter reported that an “electric car with no driver” would not stop rolling into the fire scene and “was going to run over our hoses and possibly put our firefighters at risk.”
“I yelled at the car twice to stop, banging with my fist on the hood,” a firefighter wrote in the subsequent “Unusual Occurrence” report. “After warning car twice, I smashed the window and the vehicle stopped.”
Some of these incidents really do seem plucked from a Warner Bros. cartoon. Firefighters working in the wake of a March 21 windstorm report two Cruise vehicles rolling through warning tape and straight into the downed Muni wires the fire department was on-scene to deal with.
Then, like Wile. E. Coyote running into the man-sized sling-shot, the cars kept rolling until the tension of the wires entangled in their roof apparatus tightened to the point where they ceased driving.
“This incident raises many serious concerns about the safety of these Cruise driverless vehicles,” wrote the firefighter who filled out the report. “The need for these vehicles to recognize a road closed by caution tape, and caution sandwich boards is imperative. Secondly, the vehicle failed to recognize the large gauge Muni line hanging in its path. If this wire had still been ‘hot,’ this would have been much more hazardous. It is also of note that the vehicle did not recognize when it hit the heavy wire, or that it was being dragged on its roof top for half a block.”
To date, no firefighter has been run over, and no fire victim has suffered because emergency personnel have been unable to move their vehicles or access fire hydrants. But this, like the fact there was no electricity running through those downed Muni wires, appears to be a series of lucky breaks.
On the evening of April 26, a driverless Cruise vehicle stopped just behind a fire rig parked on Pine Street and would not move. Per the subsequent report, firefighters were forced to stop what they were doing and go about “poking and prodding the vehicle, and pounding on the windows until the driver’s window rolled down.”
A firefighter then spoke via a radio in the car to a Cruise employee. “The individual apologized for the ‘inconvenience,’ and said a team was working on moving the car,” reads the report. “Even after talking to him, the car did not immediately get moved from the scene. I informed him that this time it was an ‘inconvenience,’ but if someone needed to be rescued by the Truck it could have been a life and death situation.”
More than a year ago, Cruise worked with local fire and law-enforcement personnel to produce this 19-minute video instructing emergency responders on how to interact with its vehicles.
This video has all the flat line-readings of an early ’90s infomercial (RIP Don Lapre), but the high-quality camerawork and insane production budget of a 21st-century tech company. The video concludes with firefighters demonstrating how to saw through a disabled driverless vehicle without being electrocuted, and hacking a perfectly good vehicle into pieces.
Again and again, the video instructs emergency responders to call a phone number and defer to subject-matter specialists. The phone number is repeated with 1-877-KARS-FOR-KIDS regularity, and it’s hard not to sympathize with emergency responders now additionally saddled with making phone calls rather than, you know, responding to emergencies.
The increasing number of autonomous vehicles traversing San Francisco have generated recent local headlines for randomly stopping and triggering traffic jams; being unable to navigate the city’s ever-present fog and even slamming into an articulated Muni bus.
Every firefighter I spoke with wanted them off city streets to work out the kinks, posthaste. But that’s not the call of a local fire department — or, it turns out, any local official. Autonomous vehicles are regulated at a statewide level. And, in addition to tech wizards, all of these companies have government wranglers on the payroll.
That’s why their vehicles navigate through government regulation with so much more ease than they do the actual terrain of our city.
The next step, as it often is in San Francisco, appears to be legislative guerrilla warfare. A resolution approved by all 11 supervisors (but left unsigned by Mayor London Breed) concedes that local government, by and large, does not have permitting authority regarding autonomous vehicles. The resolution, however, states, that the city can indeed put a hand on the wheel (or a foot on the brake) via regulations on “potential operators using the public right-of-way, including but not limited to fleet charging, fleet deployment, curb management tools, tax incentives, fee waivers, and other approvals.”
So, that may be one version of our city’s future. Among many.
After handling the wayward Waymo at the exploding-house scene on Feb. 9, the officer blew off some steam with his colleagues. “The flare didn’t work!” he said with a laugh.
“I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t get in front of a robot,” says a fellow cop. “It’s only a matter of time, dude. Have you guys seen ‘Terminator?’”
Uproarious laughter. “Skynet is awake!” More laughter.
And it was real funny. For now.
Map by Will Jarrett. Basemap from Mapbox.