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Watch What Happens When Police Pull Over A Driverless Car

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Automated vehicles (AV) are still a long way from becoming common on our roads, but the path to develop them is well underway, meaning every now and t hen we’ll be interacting with what are, essentially, 3,500-pound robots. So we probably should get used to it. Some cities have been early AV testing grounds for a while now, so you’d think that interactions with these machines would be well understood. Based on this video of cops reacting with what seems to be bafflement after seeing a Cruise car with no human driver, that’s clearly not the case. This is especially odd since this happened in San Francisco, which has been the home to multiple AV companies —  including Aurora, Cruise, Uber, and Zoox — for years now. Still, it’s fun to watch the confusion.

The incident happened on April 2 in San Francisco’s Inner Richmond district, and was filmed with obvious delight by at least one onlooker:

As you can see in the video, cops pull over a Chevy Bolt outfitted with Cruise’s roof-load of sensors, looking kind of like one of those fruit hats Carmen Miranda wore, but with the oranges and pineapples replaced with LIDAR domes and cameras. [Editor’s note: As is becoming all too common, I don’t understand this cultural reference. -DT].

The cops approach the car, looking inside with what appears to be confusion as they find no driver. The cop tries the door handle, then begins to return back to his squad car. That’s where this gets fun.

The Cruise car then takes off, as though fleeing the scene of the crime, and while it’s fun to joke about the Bolt’s tendency to, um, bolt, that’s not really what happened, since it crossed the intersection, turned on its hazard lights, and came to a stop.

The cops, who seemed surprised when the car took off, jumped in their squad car and pursued the Cruise AV the 80 or so feet to where it stopped, then got out again to mill around the vehicle and talk to each other, seemingly hoping someone had a good idea what to do here.

Notably, when the car stopped, it did so in the right lane, and didn’t attempt to park in the parking lane. A screenshot of the Cruise Chevrolet Bolt being pulled over

It appears that the police stopped the Cruise car because it was driving without headlights on, which feels strange; even if the car uses a combination of LIDAR (which is less dependent on ambient light) and cameras (which are), it’s not like Cruise doesn’t know to turn headlights on in the dark; cars have had sensors for that for decades, and, even without sensors, it would be trivial to have the car just turn them on between, say, the hours of 6 PM and 6 AM, or something.

I reached out both to the San Francisco Police Department and Cruise, and as of this moment, only Cruise has responded, pointing me to some tweets it posted about the incident yesterday:

So, the car wasn’t attempting to flee and start a new life under an assumed title and registration in Mexico; it was following directives, and pulled to what it felt was the nearest safe location for the traffic stop, which it determined was on the other side of the intersection.

Was that, in fact, the safest thing to do when cops had already stopped the car and were already out next to it? Probably not. But Cruise assures me that safety was the car’s goal.

Cruise has a whole video explaining how its vehicles deal with law enforcement, and how it expects interactions with police and first responders to work:

The automated-driving company mention that police have a direct number to call (888-662-7103) if there are any issues. You’d think maybe that might be something good to print right on the car, even if that means dealing with more calls from punk kids and fussy people who post on NextDoor every time they see someone in their neighborhood with hair they don’t like.

A few interesting takeaways from this video: All Cruise cars have specific names on their hood and rear quarters, so you can know if one is stalking you. Also, the cars are designed to identify the sounds of sirens and the visuals of flashing emergency vehicle lights. Oh, and all of a Cruise AV’s documentation, like registration and proof of insurance, can be found inside the charge port door.

In the video above, Cruise directly addresses the issue in the video — How will a first responder know the car won’t drive away when stopped, since it’s pretty impervious to intimidation or fear of huge fines and jail time? — but the answer is simply: Contact Cruise’s team directly.

Cruise AVs are Level 4 AVs–that means they’re completely automated, but they’re restricted to a specific Operational Design Domain (ODD). That’s just jargon for a restricted area, really — one that Cruise has extensively mapped and approved for their AVs to use.

The video really leans heavily on contacting Cruise directly in these situations. I suspect that’s fine in many cases, but it does bring up some issues; should police and first responders have some more direct means of disabling an AV?

Should there be some sort of kill switch that first responders (if not the general population, because, you know, those punk teens) can access to shut down the vehicle directly, from the outside, if needed?

It feels like this sort of confusion around AVs isn’t going away any time soon, and there’s still a lot of concern about some really key principles, as we discussed last week about Level 3 automation.

Even such basic ideas as how AVs should get out of tricky situations isn’t agreed upon in any universal way; some states (Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Utah, and Michigan) ask vehicles meet a “minimal risk condition,” which isn’t clearly defined but should mean the car can get out of the way, ideally away from active traffic lanes.

While 13 other states have tested AVs at some point, most have no real clear conditions or requirements for how to handle first responder situations or other failure states. Ohio and Washington require some sort of remote guidance abilities, but only California is really monitoring things in any sort of active way.

So, sure, those cops didn’t really appear to know exactly what to do with this human-free robo-car. But they shouldn’t feel too bad, as it doesn’t really seem anybody has this completely under control, either.

[Editor’s note: I’m having a hard time believing that police officers in San Francisco are somehow unacquainted with Cruise’s self-driving cars. Jason and I disagree on this; I don’t think the officers in this video looked particularly confused. They try the door handle like anyone would, then later they call someone — presumably Cruise. That’s protocol. Also, I’m disappointed that Jason didn’t at least note the old Crown Vic still in service. -DT].

Screenshots: b.rad916
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36 Responses

  1. Drew says:
    April 11, 2022 at 3:40 pm
    Hey, now, I needed a Citation!
    The only person that “needed” a citation already had a citation and needed parts!

    Weird, I can’t reply to Drew’s post, alas glitches.

  2. I think another angle to this story is how punishments for violating the rules of the road come into play for AVs. An individual driver can be forced via fines and license suspensions to modify their behavior, but an AV company could decide that paying speeding tickets is worth it if they can deliver something on time or be the fastest cab service in the city.

    Also, I’d never seen brush loppers used to cut automotive glass before. That was a very interesting sound.

    1. In that case, it will be the lawyers and insurance companies regulating the AV company. If they injure or kill someone while breaking the law, then they’ll be liable. If anything they’ll be more apt to follow the law. That said, Ford and Chevy are known for killing their customers because it’s cheaper than a $1 part.

      1. It could depend on the business model somewhat. I imagine at some point the company making the AV and the company operating the AV will be different. Then, the operating company gets sued, goes bankrupt, and magically reforms with the same officers at another PO box to continue.

        Other violations may be even harder to enforce, like illegal parking.

        I guess my perspective is that we seem do very poorly at holding companies responsible for their actions in the US. A relevant example may be Amazon Drivers and other “independent contractors” for delivery services. The company creates very strict timelines and incentives, which leads to the drivers breaking the law. The independent contractor structure isolates the parent companies (Amazon, FedEx, et al) from liability. I see no reason why that problem would get better with AVs.

  3. I know this isn’t a car idea per se, but I’d very much enjoy a series on teaching David Tracy about literally all of culture that can’t be found on the underside of a leaking Jeep.

    I mean, Carmen Miranda shouldn’t be THAT obscure for a man of 30. Missing a Swedish Chef reference earlier makes me just straight up concerned.

      1. Well, it’s weird.

        I spent 8 of my first 12 years in Germany, so all the U.S. references from 1991 to about 2000 you can forget about. (Like Mr. Rogers; I’ve never watched him once).

        Then I moved to Kansas. From 2003 to 2009, I had my eyes open, so if you find some cultural references from that era, I bet I’ll get them. From 2009 to 2013 I was in my engineering books basically 24/7, so forget about that, too.

        Then I moved to Detroit in ’13, where I’ve been wrenching or writing basically all day, everyday.

        So you’ve got a six-year window to work with.

          1. NOBODY is too young for the Muppets!

            That’s not even joking, between numerous revivals and heavy syndication they’ve never really left. I’m pretty sure that this was the first time I’ve ever seen someone not know who the Swedish Chef was.

        1. If you were in Kansas from ’03-’09 you should be pretty caught up on the 90’s. That’s roughly when they got there.

          I am beginning to think a Wikipedia style reference section is going to be a need for the Autopian. No need for Citations though. Nobody ever needed a Citation.

          1. Hey, now, I needed a Citation! Well, I guess just about any car would have done just fine.
            The Citation II is what absolutely no one needed, especially since it was just a rebrand of the same car.

          2. The only barely acceptable Citation is the one made by Cessna.

            Barely acceptable because ATC’s nickname for the Citation is ‘Slowtation’ since they are the slowest of the bizjets and mess up the sequencing.

        2. As a military brat I spent about 6 years in Germany, the rest bouncing around the US. AFN and the British TV stations (all over the air, damn I am old) were my fill in for America Culture. I know the disconnected feeling, coming to the US, looking around, and going when did that get here?

          How about a kickstarter for the David Tracy Culture Reference Training Camp?

          Or a submission piece for a game show, can David catch the reference?

  4. As a San Franciscan these self driving cars have become a common annoyance. There are many more Waymos than Cruises. What I have really been wondering for many years is how is San Francisco is continuing to maintain this fleet of Crown Victorias? Did they just buy a ton of extra Crown Vics and keep pulling them out of storage or is the police fleet really just that old. Would be good article on this site. There’s still seem to be more of them here than the replacement Explorer.

    1. I see you say they are a common annoyance, but in what way? It seems they would be annoyingly slow, never turn right on red. They seem like they would drive like an elderly person, like your average Charger owner.

      That’s just my guess though.

  5. On another website I asked, how did the robocar know that it was being pulled over?The police car does not seem to have it’s lights and sirens on at the first stop.
    As drivers we are all aware of the importance of the lights and sirens of emergency vehicles, pull over until they pass safely and then continue. We are also aware that, however well we drive, we may forget things, sometimes. What I would like to know is; How did the robocar know it was being pulled over?
    I have been through the sound and vision arguments, they do not hold water.as anyone who has driven in a city will know.
    If one thinks it through there is a very specific protocol involved when stopped by the police most of which is not written down.
    So, my question remains,
    How did the robocar know?

    1. Time for some young hacker vandals to inject some code into an autonomous car.

      =if(CopLights = On, Recalculate Route: Mexico, Continue Route)

      Written as if a Google Sheet Formula cause I’m not a programmer!

  6. Those cops don’t look confused like a lot of other media outlets are trying to push. There definitely is a bit of “I can’t believe I am doing a traffic spot on a driverless car” body language going on, I’m sure the large audience doesn’t help with that.

    What does surprise me… how many cops were in a single squad car. I think I counted 3, but there could have been a 4th there. At least one of them was riding in the back… I have NEVER seen this. Maybe its a Cali thing. Here in NC It generally is one cop per car and 3 cars will swarm a stop.

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