At approximately 2 a.m. on March 19, off-duty San Francisco firefighter Adam Wood received a 911 call and rushed to help a man in the city’s Mission neighborhood who was suffering a medical emergency. After loading the patient into the ambulance, a black-and-white car stopped and blocked the way.
It was a driverless vehicle operated by Waymo, an autonomous car company owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet. With no human driver to direct him to move out of the way, Mr Wood spoke to a remote operator through a device in the car, who said someone would come and take the vehicle.
Instead, another autonomous Waymo car arrived and blocked the other side of the road, Mr. Wood said. The ambulance was eventually able to leave after being forced to back up, and the patient, who was not in critical condition, was taken to hospital. But self-driving cars added seven minutes to emergency response, he said.
“Everything was ruined for no reason,” said Mr Wood, 55.
Their experience was indicative of how self-driving taxis are increasingly impacting urban services. Police officers, firefighters and other city employees said that in San Francisco and Austin, Texas, where commuters can use autonomous vehicles, the cars have slowed emergency response times, leading to accidents, increased congestion and The workload on local officials has increased.
More than 600 self-driving vehicle incidents were recorded in San Francisco from June 2022 to June 2023, according to the city’s municipal transportation agency. After an episode where a driverless car from General Motors subsidiary Cruise struck and dragged a pedestrian, California regulators ordered the company to suspend its service last month. Cruise Chief Executive Kyle Vogt resigned on Sunday.
In Austin, city officials said there were 52 autonomous car incidents from July 8 to October 24, including the first crash of its kind into a “small electrical building” by a prototype robotaxi without a steering wheel.
To deal with the fallout, San Francisco has designated at least one city employee to work on autonomous car policies and assigned two transportation agencies to compile a database of incidents based on 911 calls, social media posts and employee reports and Is asked to manage. This summer, Austin also formed an internal task force to help log driverless vehicle incidents.
“There are a lot of people on the task force handling this as well as other general day-to-day operations,” said Austin Fire Department Training Captain Matthew McLearney. “In my job description, it doesn’t say ‘task force member’.”
San Francisco and Austin offer a preview of what to expect in other locations. While self-driving cars have been tested in more than two dozen U.S. cities over the past few years, those tests have moved to a new phase where human drivers — who once rode autonomous vehicle rides — now drive the cars during the ride. Don’t live in. Waymo and Cruise then began providing fully driverless taxi services with those cars in some cities.
Cruise has since suspended its autonomous vehicle operations. But Waymo and others are continuing to develop and test their cars in potential markets and the technology will spread, said Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina professor who has advised the federal government on automated driving.
Cruise had tested its driverless taxis in San Francisco, Austin and Phoenix and planned to expand to Houston, Dallas and Miami. Waymo, which offers driverless rides in Phoenix and San Francisco, said it will next launch its services in Los Angeles and Austin. Zoox, another self-driving car company, said it planned to introduce robotaxis in San Francisco and Las Vegas, but did not give a timeframe.
Other cities where self-driving cars have been tested are preparing to fully deploy robotaxis. The Nashville Fire Department said it is creating an annual training for firefighters about cars. Seattle’s Fire Department said it has added safety issues with driverless cars to an employee’s responsibilities during each shift.
Some cities said they have had better experiences with robotaxis. Kate Gallego, the mayor of Phoenix, where Waymo has run autonomous taxi services since 2020, said the company met extensively with local officials and conducted safety tests before deploying the fleet of 200 vehicles at locations including the airport.
“Our residents have generally appreciated this service,” he said.
Waymo, Cruise and Zoox said they have worked closely with officials in many cities and continue to improve their vehicles to minimize the impact on local services. Waymo said it had “no evidence of our vehicles stopping ambulances” in San Francisco on March 19.
Few cities are grappling with self-driving cars more than San Francisco. Google, which is headquartered in nearby Silicon Valley, began Driverless vehicles were tested in the city in 2009, and robotaxi services were launched in November 2022. Cruise, founded in San Francisco in 2013, began testing its vehicles on city streets in 2015 and is expected to offer its first driverless rides to passengers in February 2022.
Since then, hundreds of cars have been traveling through the streets of San Francisco. At one time, Waymo had 250 driverless vehicles in the city, while Cruise had 300 during the day and 100 at night. Residents often saw cars driving by — sedans equipped with more than a dozen cameras and high-tech sensors, some hovering on their roofs.
In July 2018, the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency asked transportation policy veteran Julia Friedlander to work on understanding how San Francisco would be affected by self-driving cars. He met with autonomous car companies and state regulators, who issue permits for companies to test and operate their vehicles, to discuss the city’s concerns about safety and overcrowding.
After five years, Ms. Friedlander said, there are still no systematic state safety and incident reporting standards for driverless cars in California. “This is such a dramatic change in transportation that it will take years to really finalize the regulatory framework,” he said.
Last year, the number of 911 calls from San Francisco residents about robotaxis began increasing, city officials said. According to a letter sent by city officials to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 28 incidents were recorded over a three-month period.
By June, autonomous car incidents in San Francisco had increased to such “alarming levels” that the city’s fire department created a separate autonomous vehicle incident form, said Darius Lutrop, the department’s deputy chief. As of October 15, 87 incidents were reported with the form.
“We are moving forward with the hope that this amazing technology will work like a human driver,” Mr. Luthrop said. “That turned out not to be the case.”
Firefighter Mr. Wood attended a week-long training session hosted by Waymo at the fire department’s training center in June to learn more about self-driving vehicles. But he said he was disappointed.
“None of us took any training away from driving a stalled car,” he said, adding that it takes 10 minutes to manually take over a car, which is too long in an emergency.
His main solution, he said, was to bang on the car’s window or tap on its door so he could talk to the vehicle’s remote operator. The operator will then attempt to restart the vehicle remotely or send someone to manually override it, he said.
Waymo said it released a software update to its cars in October that will let firefighters and other authorities take control of the vehicles within seconds.
After the California Public Utilities Commission, a state regulator, voted in August to allow the expansion of robotaxi services in San Francisco, Waymo and Cruise began meeting every two weeks with the city’s fire, police and emergency management departments.
San Francisco Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson said her department is now in a “decent place” with the companies and said Cruz’s suspension has given it more time to resolve issues with the cars in emergency situations. But he expected more meetings and adjustments as other self-driving companies came on board.
“It’s very time-consuming, and we have an entire fire department – an entire city – to run,” Ms Nicholson said.