Three days prior to a pivotal Aug. 10 vote on whether autonomous vehicle companies can charge passengers for all rides at all times in San Francisco, firefighters and police officers voiced their concerns and urged the state to slow down.
“I’m not trying to stop technology from moving forward, nor would I ever have the power to do so. What I am is pro-safety,” San Francisco Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson said at a Monday afternoon all-party meeting at the California Public Utilities Commission. Administrative law judge Robert Mason and CPUC commissioners Genevieve Shiroma, Alice Reynolds, Darcie Houck and John Reynolds were present at the meeting.
In the past year and change, the fire department has logged some 55 “Unusual Occurrence” reports of driverless vehicles interfering with fire equipment or personnel — and most have taken place since April of this year. In some of these cases, the autonomous vehicle stopped unexpectedly in response zones or obstructed access to a fire station. In other cases, the vehicles traveled abnormally, hitting or nearly hitting personnel or equipment.
In the work of firefighters, “Every second can make the difference between life or death; a fire can double in size in one minute,” said Nicholson.
Yet during one operation, her firefighters had to spend half an hour tending to a disoriented autonomous vehicle. “That’s just unacceptable,” she said. “I will reiterate; it is not our job to babysit their vehicles.”
Also upsetting to firefighters was “zero transparency” of data from self-driving car companies. Because Waymo and Cruise do not disclose internal counts of unexpected stops or other incidents that impede first responders, the fire department is forced to depend on information from members of the public, city employees, firefighters or transit operators, which oftentimes resulted in incomplete or duplicate reports.
And “it’s been a one-way conversation until very recently,” said Nicholson, urging two-way data- and information-sharing. “Giving full authorization for autonomous vehicle companies to expand really gives them no reason to meet us and work with us on what our operations require.”
“They’re still not ready for prime time, because of how they have impacted our operations,” concluded Nicholson.
Cruise, Waymo pitch: First responders should train to disable self-driving cars
Representatives from Cruise and Waymo claimed at the meeting that they had successfully demonstrated the ability for first responders to take over a vehicle when it becomes an impediment. “I would say that it is never the responsibility of the first responder to do so,” said one of the industry reps. “We wanted to have it as an additional option.”
Cruise and Waymo proposed training programs with law enforcement and first responders on how to “familiarize themselves” with autonomous vehicles.
Cruise has designed on-site training that lasts 30 to 90 minutes, a joint training with the San Francisco fire department on Treasure Island in the near future, and a 3.5-minute video demonstrating how to dismantle a Cruise vehicle blocking the roadway — which requires three to four people. The video also provides a phone number that first responders are encouraged to call for instructions before taking action.
Waymo said it has trained more than 900 San Francisco police officers and firefighters in how to interact with their vehicles. Instead of a phone number, Waymo has placed a QR code on either side of its autonomous cars that emergency workers can use to call Waymo.
Neither program seemed well-received among first responders, however. “They need to be trained on how to interact with us and not have multi-layers of bureaucracy between us,” said Darius Luttropp, deputy chief for operations for the fire department.
He hoped autonomous vehicles could be programmed to better recognize unusual road obstacles, like sandwich boards, caution tape, and human traffic controllers. He’s still disgruntled by an incident last weekend in the Richmond District, during which an autonomous vehicle entered an emergency scene and parked between a fire engine and a vehicle on fire.
Driverless car companies’ notion of having first responders call them for instructions was not practical to Luttropp, who noted that firefighters often don’t have access to a phone at emergency scenes.
Nicole Jones, a San Francisco police commander, said she understood the need for each company to safeguard its proprietary information, but California currently has 41 authorized autonomous companies, presenting too many different rules for first responders during an emergency.
“We want to be able to deal with emergency situations quickly and effectively,” she said. “If there are 41 different protocols that have to be followed, 41 different phone numbers that have to be called, it’s just a lot.”
Autonomous vehicle incidents rising
What’s of utmost importance to Luttropp and Jones is that the autonomous vehicle companies carry out their orders immediately. “What ‘immediately’ means is, when I issue you the command and ask you to do something, my expectation is that you do it as soon as I say it,” said Jones — as a human driver would.
“There is a big difference between ‘as soon as possible’ and ‘immediately,’ and that is the gap that we are most concerned with,” said Julia Friedlander, a senior manager overseeing automated driving policy at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. According to her, it’s not uncommon for a first responder’s phone call to go unanswered by an autonomous vehicle company for several minutes.
She said the 55 — and counting — examples that the fire department has cited of driverless cars’ interference with law enforcement or first responder operations “demonstrated that these vehicles themselves are not understanding human traffic control.”
Just one week ago, that number was 50. “We think that the companies are ready to move forward with broad expansion when that number has gone down, and does not continue to go up,” said Friedlander.
Waymo and Cruise are expected to scale up their fleet if unfettered autonomous vehicle use is approved on Thursday. Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt, in a July 25 General Motors earnings call, stated that San Francisco could easily absorb “several thousand” Cruise vehicles to “blanket” the city. Per the Department of Motor Vehicles, there are currently 303 Cruise vehicles permitted to operate in San Francisco, meaning the state vote could usher in a tenfold increase, or more.
“For expansion, it’s not just about any numbers. It’s about meeting a time and place where San Franciscans want to be moved from place to place,” said a Cruise representative at today’s meeting. “We can only put out enough to actually match that demand to exactly match where San Franciscans want to be and when.”
“I will say that the references to tens of thousands of vehicles, those are not representative of Waymo’s plans to scale in the immediate aftermath of securing our permit,” said a representative of Waymo — though it is unclear who, if anyone, was referring to “tens of thousands” of vehicles; Vogt on July 25 spoke of “several thousand.”
“We plan to grow our fleet in a very measured way,” she continued. Waymo says it now has 250 vehicles active, with 100 of them on the roads of San Francisco at any given time.
Mark Gruberg, a board member of San Francisco Taxi Workers Alliance, urged the commissioners to “be postponing this vote that’s upcoming until you’ve collected and analyzed the data.”
Adam Wood, the secretary of the San Francisco Firefighters Union, added: “If you approve to remove the restrictions on the number of vehicles and hours of operation, what that’s going to mean, at least in the immediate term, is that these incidents will continue and increase in frequency.”
“So, I’d ask you to take your foot off the gas,” he added. “This may be able to work, but we’re not there yet, and we certainly won’t be there by Thursday.”
On Aug. 10 at 11 a.m., the California Public Utilities Commission will vote on whether Waymo and Cruise can charge passengers for all rides at all times in San Francisco. To remotely observe the meeting, please click here.