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Cruise to beef up its tech after San Francisco emergency, first responder blowback

A car without a driver is seen in the road by a building as a man uses a crosswalk nearby
A pedestrian crosses Division Street as a driverless Cruise approaches them in San Francisco. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

Cruise has announced new features to better address vehicle interactions with emergency and first responder vehicles, an effort that is being publicized after months of tensions with San Francisco officials.

The San Francisco-based robotaxi giant, owned by General Motors, wrote in a blog post Thursday that it has launched “key innovations” to better share the roads with first responder vehicles.

Some of Cruise’s efforts appear to directly address incidents that went viral in the weeks and months after state regulators approved the expansion of robotaxis. 

"These changes were the result of our process of continuous improvement to safety and reliability in our service," Navideh Forghani, a Cruise spokesperson, said in a statement to The Standard. "We understand the unique challenges first responders may face when interacting with an autonomous vehicle and that it is imperative that we listen to their concerns. Our goal is to enhance the AV's responsiveness in various emergency situations and continuously improve."

Cruise says it is updating vehicle systems to better recognize emergency scenes and to bypass double-parked emergency vehicles. A slew of reports involving Cruises interfering with first responders received attention in the months leading up to the expansion. In September, an incident involving a pedestrian fatally struck by a Muni bus drew criticism from the autonomous vehicle manufacturer after first responders alleged that Cruises impeded an ambulance from getting to the pedestrian. (The company maintains that the vehicles did not impede the ambulance, and the fire chief and SFMTA later issued a statement that placed blame away from Cruise.)

Cruise is improving its siren detection and response features, slowing down to 70% of the posted speed limit as soon as it detects a siren—even when that siren is not visible—and identifying more “early stopping locations” so the vehicle can stop more effectively.

And, seemingly in response to a viral clip of one of its vehicles getting entangled in Muni wires and caution tape, Cruise also noted that it introduced new features earlier this year for its vehicles to better identify fire hoses and caution tape.

These efforts appear to be part of Cruise’s efforts to improve its reputation among city officials and the general public.

In the days after the robotaxi expansion was first approved, City Attorney David Chiu filed a motion to the California Public Utilities Commission for a temporary halt—lambasting robotaxis’ performance, in particular, when it comes to interfering with first responders, public transit and street construction. Last month, the city officially filed its request for a rehearing of the key vote.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles halved the number of cars operating in San Francisco; Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt said last month at TechCrunch’s Disrupt conference that its peak fleet in the city was around “400 concurrent AVs.”

At the time, Vogt said that its ramped-up presence in the city is “the beginning of a conversation with regulators, with city officials.”

“They have a positive impact on the society,” Vogt said. “But we cannot expect perfection.”