‘Time wasted for no reason’: how driverless taxis are stressing cities

‘Time wasted for no reason’: how driverless taxis are stressing cities

Around 2 a.m. on March 19, Adam Wood, an on-duty San Francisco firefighter, received a 911 call and rushed to the city’s Mission neighborhood to help a man who was having a medical emergency. After loading the patient into an ambulance, a black and white car stopped and blocked the road.

It was a driverless vehicle operated by Waymo, a self-driving car company owned by Google parent company Alphabet. Without a human driver to tell to get out of the way, Wood spoke through a device in the car to a remote operator, who told him someone would come to take the vehicle.

Instead, another self-driving Waymo car arrived and blocked the other side of the street, Wood said. The ambulance was eventually able to leave after being forced to turn back and the patient, who was not in critical condition, arrived at the hospital. But autonomous vehicles added seven minutes to emergency response, he said.

“That was all wasted time for no reason,” Wood, 55, said.

Their experience was a sign of how autonomous taxis are beginning to take their toll on urban services. In San Francisco and Austin, Texas, where passengers can hail self-driving vehicles, cars have slowed emergency response times, caused accidents, increased congestion and increased the workload of local officials, officials said. police, firefighters and other city employees.

In San Francisco, more than 600 incidents involving autonomous vehicles were documented between June 2022 and June 2023, according to the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency. After an episode in which a self-driving car from Cruise, a subsidiary of General Motors, hit and dragged a pedestrian, California regulators ordered the company to suspend its service last month. Kyle Vogt, Cruise’s chief executive, resigned on Sunday.

In Austin, city officials said there were 52 incidents involving autonomous vehicles between July 8 and Oct. 24, including a first-of-its-kind crash involving a prototype steering-wheelless robotaxi into a “small building.” electric”.

To handle the fallout, San Francisco designated at least one city employee to work on self-driving car policies and asked two transportation agencies to compile and manage an incident database based on 911 calls, social media posts. and employee reports. This summer, Austin also formed an internal task force to help record driverless vehicle incidents.

“A lot of people on the task force are juggling this and other normal daily operations,” said Matthew McElearney, Austin Fire Department training captain. “In my job description, it doesn’t say ‘task group member.’”

San Francisco and Austin offer a preview of what to expect elsewhere. While self-driving cars have been tested in more than two dozen U.S. cities over the years, those tests have moved into a newer phase in which human drivers, who once rode in vehicles autonomous, they no longer remain in the cars during trips. Then, Waymo and Cruise began offering fully driverless taxi services in some cities with those cars.

Cruise has since suspended its autonomous vehicle operations. But Waymo and others continue to develop and test their cars in potential markets and the technology will spread, said Bryant Walker Smith, a professor at the University of South Carolina 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 them to Houston, Dallas and Miami. Waymo, which offers self-driving rides in Phoenix and San Francisco, said it would soon roll out its services to Los Angeles and Austin. Zoox, another autonomous vehicle company, said it planned to introduce robotaxis in San Francisco and Las Vegas, but did not provide a timeframe.

Other cities where autonomous vehicles have been tested are preparing for when robotaxis are fully deployed. The Nashville Fire Department said it was creating annual training for firefighters about the cars. The Seattle Fire Department said it had added safety issues with driverless vehicles to an employee’s responsibilities during each shift.

Some cities said their experience with robotaxis had been smoother. Kate Gallego, mayor of Phoenix, where Waymo has offered self-driving taxi services since 2020, said the company met extensively with local officials and conducted safety tests before deploying a fleet of 200 vehicles to places like the airport.

“Overall, our residents have really appreciated this service,” he said.

Waymo, Cruise and Zoox said they had worked closely with officials in many cities and continued to improve their vehicles to minimize effects on local services. Waymo added that it had “no evidence that our vehicles blocked an ambulance” on March 19 in San Francisco.

Few cities have taken on autonomous vehicles more than San Francisco. Google, whose headquarters are in nearby Silicon Valley, began It tested driverless vehicles in the city in 2009 and introduced robotaxi services in November 2022. Cruise, founded in San Francisco in 2013, began testing its vehicles on city roads in 2015 and offered its first driverless ride to passengers in February 2022.

Since then, hundreds of cars have traveled the streets of San Francisco. At one point, Waymo had 250 driverless vehicles in the city, while Cruise had 300 during the day and 100 at night. Residents frequently watched the cars pass by (sedans equipped with more than a dozen high-tech cameras and sensors, some rotating on their roofs).

In July 2018, the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency asked Julia Friedlander, a transportation policy veteran, to work to understand how San Francisco would be affected by autonomous vehicles. She met with self-driving car companies and state regulators, which give companies permits to test and operate their vehicles, to discuss the city’s concerns about safety and congestion.

After five years, there are still no systematic state safety and incident reporting standards for self-driving cars in California, Friedlander said. “This is such a dramatic type of change in transportation that it will take many years for the regulatory structure to really be finalized,” he said.

Last year, the number of 911 calls from San Francisco residents about robotaxis began to increase, city officials said. In a three-month period, 28 incidents were reported, according to a letter city officials sent to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

By June, autonomous vehicle incidents in San Francisco had risen to such a “concerning level” that the city’s Fire Department created a separate form for autonomous vehicle incidents, said Darius Luttropp, the department’s deputy chief. As of October 15, 87 incidents with the form had been recorded.

“We move forward with the expectation that this wonderful technology will function like a human driver,” Luttropp said. “That didn’t turn out to be the case.”

Wood, the firefighter, attended a week-long training session held by Waymo in June at the Fire Department’s training center to learn more about autonomous vehicles. But he said he was disappointed.

“None of us came away from training with any way to get a stopped car to move,” he said, adding that manually taking control of the car takes 10 minutes, which is too long in an emergency.

His main takeaway was that he needed to knock on the car window or knock on the door to be able to talk to the vehicle’s remote operator, he said. The operator would then attempt to re-activate the vehicle remotely or send someone to manually override it, he said.

Waymo said it had rolled out a software update to its cars in October that would allow firefighters and other authorities to take control of the vehicles in seconds.

After the California Public Utilities Commission, a state regulator, voted in August to allow an expansion of robotaxi services in San Francisco, Waymo and Cruise began meeting biweekly with fire, police and traffic management departments. city ​​emergencies.

San Francisco Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson said her department was now in a “decent place” with the companies and added that Cruise’s suspension offered more time to resolve car problems in emergency situations. But she anticipated more meetings and adjustments as other autonomous vehicle companies come on board.

“It’s going to take up time and we have an entire fire department, an entire city, to manage,” Nicholson said.

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John C. Johnson

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