An Autonomous Car Blocked a Fire Truck Responding to an Emergency

Early In the morning of April, around 4 a.m., a San Francisco Fire Department truck responding to a fire attempted to pass a double-parking garbage truck using the opposite lane. But an itinerant autonomous vehicle, operated by the General Motors Cruise subsidiary with no one inside, blocked its way. Although a human may have stepped back to clear the lane, the cruise car stopped. The fire truck only passed the lock when the driver of the garbage truck ran out of work to move his vehicle.

“This incident slowed SFFD’s response to a fire that caused property damage and personal injury,” city officials wrote in a paper presented to the California Public Utilities Commission. The city wrote that the fire department is concerned that cruise vehicles stop too often on travel lanes, which could have a “negative impact” on the fire department’s response times.

It is the most disturbing of a handful of alleged cruise-related incidents in the city of San Francisco, as officials oppose parts of a proposed permit program being developed by the San Francisco Public Service Commission. California, which regulates statewide travel.

Cruise spokeswoman Tiffany Testo confirmed the incident. He said the driverless car had correctly yielded to the fire truck approaching the opposite lane and contacted the company’s remote assistance workers, who are able to operate vehicles with problems from far. According to Cruise, which collects data from cameras and sensors from its test vehicles, the fire truck was able to advance 25 seconds after first encountering the autonomous vehicle. In a statement, Testo said Cruise “is working closely with key stakeholders, including SFFD, and they have been in contact with them regarding this meeting.” The city archive said the department has requested a meeting with Cruise about the incident, but that has not yet occurred.

SFFD and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which regulates city streets, did not respond to requests for comment.

In San Francisco, Cruise is just one of the autonomous car developers who say they are working to build a safer future. Waymo, an Alphabet company and a spin-off from Google, and Zoox, now owned by Amazon, have a presence on the city’s steep, winding roads, and locals don’t have to travel far to see a Jaguar I- Paces loaded with sensors. Chevrolet Bolts and Toyota Highlanders charting routes through downtown and residential neighborhoods. Cruise is now applying for a permit that would allow it to launch the state’s first driverless hail service. Extensive and costly scientific experiment could also change the way many city dwellers navigate their cities.

San Francisco reports two more incidents: one, in late April, in which a cruise vehicle traveling through a work area stopped at a crosswalk and did not move for five minutes, blocking traffic; and another in April, captured by camera, in which police stopped a driverless Cruise vehicle because it did not have its headlights on.

The filing comes as a state agency is in the midst of writing rules that would allow Cruise to move forward with its plans to operate limited but statewide paid services. In San Francisco, a new permit would expand the existing Cruise program. It currently allows hand-picked citizens to travel independently between 11pm and 5am, and only in the western part of the city, which is usually less busy. If the company wins a new permit, it could start charging travel fares, which would still occur at night and early in the morning, and not with rain or fog. It would mark the launch of the state’s first driverless hail service.

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