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San Francisco robotaxis: How do police, firefighters take control of vehicles?

A Cruise car drives along Market Street in San Francisco.
A driverless Cruise car drives down 10th Street as it crosses its intersection with Market Street in Downtown San Francisco in July. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

Reporter Han Li answers a reader’s question submitted to Ask The Standard: Do police have override ability to move stalled autonomous vehicles or robotaxis?

California regulators approved the expansion of Waymo and Cruise robotaxi service in San Francisco last month, but controversies have continued to unfold about stalled or stopped driverless vehicles blocking roads and complicating first responders’ jobs at the site of emergencies.

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Last week, a San Francisco Fire Department report about a traffic accident in the South of Market neighborhood said an ambulance was “unable to leave the scene initially due to the Cruise vehicles not moving.” Cruise has disputed the department’s account of the Aug. 14 incident. The patient in the ambulance later died. 

San Francisco Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson has criticized the vehicles for “getting in the way of public safety when we’re trying to do our jobs.”

Waymo and Cruise say they have very detailed protocols for how their vehicles are supposed to perform in such situations, and instructions for how first responders can interact with the autonomous vehicles. The companies have made videos and held in-person trainings with first responders.

Viral videos in the past few months have captured some awkward interactions between law enforcement and robotaxis.

For example, a TikTok video caught the moment a Phoenix police officer tried to direct a Waymo to the side of the road, but the car did not obey. 

In response to the video, a Waymo spokesperson said the cars are equipped with advanced technology so they can respond to hand signals and construction signs. The car reacted in 90 seconds to follow the officer’s guidance, according to the spokesperson. 

In the same month, another video captured San Francisco police officers pulling over a Cruise car because its headlights were off, peering inside, and then watching it drive off; the company said the vehicle was moving to a safe location for the traffic stop.

Autonomous vehicles are programmed to follow traffic rules and regulations, and often do a better job than human drivers of, say, complying with speed limits. However, many public officials as well as ordinary people have doubts about the vehicles’ ability to react appropriately during complicated emergency situations.

Robotaxis have electronic “ears.” When the sirens of the first responders’ vehicles are on, robotaxis are supposed to recognize that and find places to pull over.

To unlock the cars, first responders are supposed to call 24-hour hotlines. The Waymo number is 877-503-0840, and Cruise’s number is 888-662-7103. Control center staff can start the process of verifying the situation and complying with law enforcement. The company can also send crews to provide in-person assistance.

First responders can ask hotline operators to put the vehicles in “manual mode” so they can drive the car away.

In addition to calling such hotlines, Cruise vehicles are equipped with a “two-way communications link” inside the car that can be used to connect with a company representative. These are a red SOS button (for emergency) and a blue button (for general inquiries) above the front and rear seats inside the cars. In Waymo vehicles, first responders can push the “DISP” button in the center console. 

The SF Fire Department has cataloged dozens of what it calls “autonomous vehicle incidents”; in one case, on June 7, a firefighter reported it took “over 8 minutes” to put the vehicle in manual mode.

In July, a group of anti-robotaxi activists found that placing orange traffic cones on the hood of a Cruise vehicle can immediately “disable” the car, forcing it to stop. Both Waymo and Cruise issued statements criticizing the behavior as unsafe and saying it created congestion.