On June 10, there was another miserable mass shooting, this time in San Francisco’s Mission District. Nine people were injured in the attack, but thankfully none were killed, though one victim is in critical condition, per news site Mission Local. What made this mass shooting different than the sadly multiple others that have happened recently is that in this one, there was another element that made the situation a bit more complex: autonomous vehicles. San Francisco’s Mission District is one of the few locations in America currently acting as a testbed for fully-automated/Level 4 vehicles, in this case Cruise robotaxis. During the chaos and fear that comes with a mass shooting, one of those Cruise robotaxis that happened to be at the scene ended up in the vicinity of police and other emergency responders. Some reports suggested that the Cruise robotaxi was in the way of emergency vehicles, though Cruise and the San Francisco Police Department refute this. However we interpret the events, this should be a warning that AV companies need to build in systems to prevent this sort of thing from happening, period.
The main reason that it has been suggested that a Cruise automated vehicle was in the way of first responders is because of this video of a frustrated police officer appearing to yell at the confused robocar:
Fellow Mission friends. Please stay away from 24th/Folsom. Gunshots fired; reckless Cruise cars. pic.twitter.com/fICRtS6e05
— Paul Valdez ????????️???? (@paulvaldezsf) June 10, 2023
In the first video, you can hear a cop yell:
“It’s blocking emergency, medical, and fire! I’ve got to get it out of here now!”
From the tone in his voice, the officer appears angry and frustrated by the car, which has stopped right in the middle of the street. It’s very hard to see how this is anything but an example of an AV in the way, though, again, Cruise and the SFPD say emergency vehicles could still get by. That said, this video must exist for some reason, and at that moment it’s possible that to that one cop’s perspective, the car’s location was an issue, at least as they interpreted the situation.
Eventually, the car made a U-turn and pulled over. Cruise released a statement about the car and its behavior during the event:
(1/3) Hi @paulvaldezsf Like all of us in San Francisco, we are saddened by this tragic event in our home city. Our thoughts are with the victims and families and we wish them all a full recovery. For more context on our vehicle interaction on the scene, read on below
— cruise (@Cruise) June 10, 2023
(3/3) We’re thankful to all our first responders for helping to keep us safe during situations like this and are committed to working collaboratively with them.
— cruise (@Cruise) June 10, 2023
While Cruise says
“Throughout this time, all vehicles, including emergency response vehicles, were able to proceed around our car.”
…that’s sure not what it seems like is going on in that first video, at least in the opinion of that one cop who was yelling by the car. But, again, SFPD corroborates Cruise, saying the cars were never blocking emergency vehicle access. And while Cruise states that they are
“thankful to all our first responders for helping to keep us safe during situations like this and are committed to working collaboratively with them,”
That level of collaboration needs to be increased, and, ideally standardized for all AV makers in the future.
I reached out to Cruise, who responded:
Thanks for reaching out. As you can see from this recent story from NBC, SF officials have said on record that we did not block emergency vehicles during the incident – which is reflective of the statements we put out on twitter.
So, despite what it sounds like the cop is yelling about in that video, Cruise denies that they did not block any emergency vehicles. And, since the car did later move out of the way, this is true. But, that doesn’t mean this is a problem that doesn’t need to be addressed; even if emergency vehicles were “able to proceed around” the car, the car is still stopped there. And in this particular case, it didn’t hinder things significantly, which is great, but it’s also a harbinger.
It’s not like this hasn’t already happened during other incidents; for example, on June 7, a Waymo automated vehicle was blocking a San Francisco Fire Department vehicle, preventing it from responding to a medical call:
In the document above it’s noted that this was the second incident of the week, and it took eight minutes to get the car put into manual mode so it could be moved out of the way. Eight minutes is a hell of a long time in a medical emergency situation. If you’re wondering what the process is and why it took so long, Waymo can actually tell you themselves:
Even in Waymo’s own training video, this all seems like far too slow and involved a process, especially when in an emergency/time critical situation. If there’s a fire or people injured or an active shooter and the car is in the way, is it really realistic to expect to get a representative on the phone to talk you through pushing several fussy little buttons? Plus, relying on the car’s network to be functional, or the cell network functional is a bad idea because we’re talking about emergency situations here, and emergencies are precisely when things like cell networks can be compromised.
This isn’t a huge issue at this very moment because there aren’t all that many robotaxis around yet (at least compared to the number of human-driven cars), and their theater of operations is limited. But, eventually, there will be more of these, operating in more places, and this type of situation will occur again. Really, it’s not even the first time the robotaxis have caused traffic blockages when things go wrong. In March, a number of Cruise robotaxis got caught up in downed wires from fallen trees:
More weather drama in my neighborhood. 2 driverless cars didnt detect 1) the caution tape blocking my street and 2) the down @SFMTA_Muni wires. Now theyre tangled up like flies in sticky traps. ???? ????????♂️ ???? @SFGate @kron4news @nbcbayarea pic.twitter.com/cLdGjvorRE
— John-Phillip ???? (@PopRag) March 22, 2023
… to much more serious incidents, such as
…San Francisco informed the Commission of an incident on April 5, 2022 when a Cruise AV stopped in a travel lane created an obstruction for a San Francisco Fire Department vehicle on its way to a 3 alarm fire.
On June 12, 2022, a Cruise AV ran over a fire hose that was in use at an active fire scene. Section 21708 of the California Vehicle Code provides that “No person shall drive or propel any vehicle or conveyance upon, over, or across, or in any manner damage any fire hose or chemical hose used by or under the supervision and control of any organized fire department . . . . “ Driving over a fire hose that is in use can seriously injure firefighters.
A solution should be figured out now, before it’s a really huge deal, instead of waiting for it to become a huge problem. Essentially, what is needed is some manner of emergency override that is available to all public safety organizations, an override that at the very, very least puts the car in neutral and releases all control and braking so it can be pushed out of the way. That’s the minimum. And this override should not be reliant on any networks or communication infrastructure that could be compromised in an emergency. These should be physical override controls, accessible to first responders. Sure, installing something like that can introduce security concerns for the owners of the robotaxis, but you know what? I don’t really care. They can figure out their security after they make certain that if a robotaxi is blocking a fire truck or ambulance, it can be moved out of the way, immediately, without waiting for contact with the operating company.
AVs should be able to know when they are in an area with emergency activity, and there needs to be agreed-upon practices for what the cars should do in those situations. First, they should get the hell out of the way – technically, that’s what cars from Waymo and Cruise are programmed to do now.
If they’re unable to get out of the way, they need to be able to be controlled by first responders on site or by remote operators either at municipal agencies or from the company who owns and operates the AVs. The technology to accomplish all of this is already in place. If time is more constrained then they just need to be able to be placed into neutral, with access to steering, so they can be physically pushed out of the way.
We can’t just rely on the owner/operator companies to handle this, because doing so involves logistical and communication delays that could put lives in jeopardy. Plus, it doesn’t make sense to give control of the AVs to an organization that may view the cars as a personal asset, and thereby create a conflict of interest if the AV may end up damaged or worse while being moved.
Ideally, we would have comprehensive and standardized laws and plans for how AVs should act in emergencies, and all AV makers would be required to implement these standards before allowed to test on public roads. There’s even potential for AVs to do a lot more for the benefit of public safety in the future, if we so choose. In my book about automated cars, Robot Take the Wheel, I let myself do a lot of speculating about what this sort of cooperation between AVs and public safety could look like in the future:
Let’s say we’re at a point where robotic vehicles are developed enough to be on the market, and that 20 to 25 percent of cars on the road are autonomous. These robotic vehicles are constantly connected to one another and the internet, as expected, and when they’re parked, idle, or otherwise empty and unused, they can let local law enforcement and emergency services know, along with important details like their location and effective fuel/battery range.
Okay. Now, let’s imagine something really terrible happens, like some deranged terrorist rents a box truck and is heading to a crowded part of town with the intention of plowing into a bunch of people, much like we’ve unfortunately seen many times before, like in April 2018 when a terrorist named Alek Minassian for the idiotic reason of not being able to get laid drove a rented van into a crowd, killing ten people.
These types of vehicular attacks can be brutal and alarmingly effective. But what if the attack could be stopped or curtailed by the use of robotic vehicles in the area? In this situation, it could be possible for law enforcement agencies to effectively commandeer nearby robotic vehicles and send them to help. They could help by parking between people and the threat, acting as barriers against vehicular attacks or even providing cover in cases of attackers armed with firearms or other weapons. Robotic vehicles could be used to attempt to ram a weaponized vehicle or force it off the road, and to block it to prevent the driver from using it to cause more harm.
Sure, that may be a bit extreme, demanding selfless heroism from AVs, but there’s no reason we can’t, as a society, demand that AVs just don’t get in the way. This doesn’t have to be complicated; there could even be a physical override button, perhaps secured with a physical key that fire and police and other emergency services have copies of. In some ways, the dumber the better, because in an emergency, you don’t want to have to be sure a given AV has a proper connection to some server somewhere or has proper authorization or whatever; you want it out of the way, now.
I don’t think this should even be negotiable. It’s time to start figuring out the best way for AVs to cause no harm during emergencies. This should be happening right now, before something like this happens again, because we all know too damn well it will.
UPDATE: After publication, Cruise emailed me in response to questions I had about their policies and plans for emergency services interactions:
Please see the following information below that should help answer those questions. And as the NBC story that I linked over in my original email shows, not everything that has been publicly reported is accurate – so please keep that in mind.
Our AVs are designed to recognize emergency vehicle sirens and lights and yield to them while following traffic rules (i.e., pulling over).
Live operational support is a key part of our overall approach to safety, and helps provide a swift response to on-road events. When the AV initiates Remote Assistance, an agent will immediately be available to assist and help resolve situations as quickly as possible.
In a situation where the AV approaches an emergency scene, remote assistance is triggered and will initiate a voice call through the AV’s system in order to communicate with the emergency responder. When appropriate, we show the critical response line phone number on our front tablets.
We strive to resolve all incidents, including those involving emergency vehicles as fast as possible, regardless of the circumstances.
We worked in partnership with the California first responders to create a training video on how to interact with our AVs based on feedback received from law enforcement and firefighters. We have a dedicated page available for emergency responders to reference, which includes our dedicated 24/7 critical response line for first responders and link to our law enforcement interaction plan.