California /

Self-Driving Cars Are Interfering With Firefighters in San Francisco

City officials voted to expand driverless car operations, disregarding report showing dozens of serious incidents

On Aug. 11, the California Public Utilities Commission voted to expand self-driving car services while also allowing companies that provide the services to begin charging fares like taxis.

The commission was not swayed by the San Francisco Fire Department, who, in the days leading up to the final vote, warned the commission about numerous occurrences where autonomous vehicles interfered with fire and emergency services, resulting in delays that can cost lives.

“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 meeting with the commission.

“Every second can make the difference between life or death; a fire can double in size in one minute,” Nicholson added.

The San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD) gave the commission a report detailing 55 incidents over the past year where autonomous vehicles impeded the fire department as it was trying to administer emergency services.

In one incident, a driverless electric vehicle kept driving towards a fire scene, threatening to run over hoses, which, as the report states, would “possibly put our firefighters at risk.” Ultimately, the firefighter had to smash a window on the vehicle to get it to stop.

During a separate incident, a driverless vehicle by the company Cruise “rapidly approached” the fire crew that was in the process of extinguishing a fire. The car stopped between the engine and crew, right on top of the hose. Firefighters had to speak with the operator via the car intercom, after which they were able to move the car, but only after an additional five minutes had elapsed.

Nicholson said that during one operation, firefighters were forced to spend half an hour tending to a disoriented autonomous vehicle, which she said was unacceptable. “I will reiterate; it is not our job to babysit their vehicles,” she added.

The autonomous vehicles are run by Cruise (owned by General Motors) and Waymo (owned by Google parent Alphabet). Waymo says it is permitted for 250 vehicles and deploys roughly 100 at any given time, while Cruise runs 100 cars in San Francisco during the day and 300 at night, NPR reported.

According to the publication, neither company has stated why their technology responds to emergency vehicles in this way.

“We have demonstrated our deep willingness and longtime commitment to work in partnership with California state, SF city and first responders,” Waymo spokesperson Katherine Barna said, per NPR. Cruise spokesperson Drew Pusateri said: “Autonomous vehicles are used by thousands of California residents and have a strong safety record.”

The SFFD states there is no transparency of data from self-driving car companies, as those companies don’t disclose internal counts of incidents that impede first responders and fire departments are forced to depend on information from public officials.

“They’re still not ready for prime time, because of how they have impacted our operations,” Nicholson added.

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