On the eve of the vote to allow unfettered access to San Francisco for driverless car companies, the San Francisco Fire Department has generated some 55 “Unusual Occurrence” reports documenting times when autonomous vehicles meandered into fire and emergency scenes. The vast majority of these reports were written since May, as these companies began ramping up activity; it is debatable just how unusual of an occurrence these Unusual Occurrence reports were documenting.
In fact, as of June 2023, the fire department simply gave up and renamed the reports “Autonomous Vehicle Incident.”
On Thursday, the California Public Utilities Commission will vote on whether to allow Cruise and Waymo to charge passengers to ride throughout San Francisco, and operate at all hours of the day (the service is presently only allowed for an elite cadre of riders). Police and fire personnel on Monday appeared before the commission to argue against enabling this now.
“I will reiterate,” said San Francisco Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson on Monday, “it is not our job to babysit their vehicles.”
In a July 25 earnings call, Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt said San Francisco has the capacity to handle “several thousand” of his company’s driverless vehicles — perhaps 10 times the present number.
The day with the most reports — four on March 21 — was also the day a record number of trees fell in San Francisco during vicious windstorms. Cruise and Waymo vehicles apparently struggled the most at a time when the city’s emergency services were already stretched thin.
Map by Will Jarrett. Data from the San Francisco Fire Department.
Among the standout reports:
- On Jan. 22, “an electric car with no driver” would not stop while advancing toward fire personnel and hoses fighting a blaze in the 1300 block of Hayes St. A firefighter eventually smashed the Cruise vehicle’s window to make it stop after they “yelled at it twice to stop, banging my fist on the hood.”
- On Jan. 24 at Laguna and Hayes streets, a Cruise autonomous vehicle “rapidly approached” firefighters extinguishing an outdoor fire. It came to a stop between them and their engine — and atop their hose. Firefighters were unable to move the car; after several minutes, an operator was contacted via the car’s intercom, and it was moved after several more minutes.
- On March 21, a fire rig was traveling on Palou Street, with lights and sirens on, to an incident. A Waymo car traveling the opposite direction turned directly in front of it onto Newhall Street and then abruptly stopped, blocking the fire rig. It did not move until approximately a minute later.
- On March 21, a fire truck with its lights and siren running passed a driverless Waymo while heading south on Dolores Street. While the driverless vehicle initially edged to the right far enough that the fire truck could pass, it then “appeared to turn sharply” and accelerated toward the rear of the fire truck. “I accelerated to avoid being hit by the driverless vehicle,” wrote the firefighter. The driverless car proceeded to chase him or her off: “The vehicle continued to come all the way over into my lane, and appeared to accelerate towards my rear bumper. I then further accelerated to get away from the vehicle as quickly as possible.”
- Also on March 21, two Cruise vehicles drove up Clay Street, going through caution tape strung across Hyde Street. Downed Muni wires caught in their rooftop apparatuses, but they kept driving. “As they continued up the street, the rise in elevation increased the tension in the wire on the roof, and the two vehicles finally came to a stop in the intersection of Clay and Leavenworth streets. … If this wire had still been ‘hot,’ this would have been much more hazardous.”
- On May 4, firefighters at Station 36 on the 1100 block of Mission St. were unable to respond to a call, as they were blockaded within by a driverless vehicle. Firefighters poured out of the fire rig to attempt to move the autonomous vehicle. While the dumpster fire — yes, a literal dumpster fire — incident was called off, the firefighters still were unable to move the autonomous vehicle. As they began backing their fire truck back into the station, the driverless car rolled off.
- On May 9, a fire truck with flashing lights began backing into its station on Webster Street. A Waymo vehicle stopped behind it, blocking it. A firefighter pounded on its window, which lowered. The firefighter leaned in and called the Waymo attendant. The attendant said there was no way the firefighter could move the vehicle. The attendant couldn’t move it, either. Then the window rolled up on the firefighter in the midst of the conversation with the attendant. The fire truck eventually “drove around the block, so the Waymo car could move out from in front of the Fire Station.”
- On May 9, a Cruise autonomous vehicle ran over “several lengths of hose that were laid out in the street” in front of Station 2 on the 1300 block of Powell St. The police were called. In the notes on this report, a fire department official notes that “several thousands dollars of damage” was inflicted on the equipment.
- On June 5, a Waymo blocked Engine 2 in its station on the 1300 block of Powell. The engine could not pull out, despite a serious “Code 3” call. “The employee from Waymo was flustered and trying to override the car and have it moved,” writes a firefighter. “It took over 2 minutes for the car to finally move.”
- On June 7, a driverless car once again blocked Engine 2 in the station. “Connected with Waymo employee remotely,” reads the report. “Took over 8 minutes to have car put in manual mode to move.”
- On June 12, a fire engine was backing up on Lincoln Avenue near 25th Avenue. While human drivers stopped for the truck, “a Cruise self-driving car failed to yield, and was heading directly toward the officer.” A firefighter giving directions to the fire truck as it backed up was forced to move to “avoid being struck” by the driverless car. “Without the direction of that backer, Engine 18 struck a non-occupied parked car, parked on Lincoln Way.”
- On July 14, a Cruise blocked a fire truck at Post and Larkin streets, approaching a burning, “fully occupied apartment building.” The Cruise “was blocking either of the two possible aerial ladder placements available to Truck 5. Truck 5 stopped and waited for 30 seconds but the Cruise vehicle did not move.”
- On July 26, a firefighter working a blaze at 18th Avenue and Balboa Street reported a Cruise vehicle stopping “right next to” their engine and staying there for “approximately 30 minutes.”
- On July 28, firefighters at Station 5 at Webster and Turk streets were unnerved by a Cruise vehicle that drove dangerously close to their fire truck. “In the name of safety … a cone was placed on the hood of the Cruise vehicle,” reads the report. While the Cruise representative told firefighters to remove the cone so the autonomous vehicle could be moved remotely, the firefighter chose not to. “I opted to leave the cone on the hood of the Cruise vehicle until a live person was present to move the vehicle.”
- On Aug. 5 at the Legion of Honor, a Waymo parked itself between a fire truck and a burning car. “This action impacted our suppression efforts negatively, due to members having to walk around the Waymo with a charged hose line and fight active fire,” reads the report. “The car was positioned between the car on fire and the fire engine.”