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An SFPD cop pulled over a self-driving car. What the viral incident means for the future of S.F.

An SFPD cop pulled over a self-driving car. What the viral incident means for the future of S.F.

When a traffic cop pulled over a robotic car on the streets of San Francisco this month, the interaction clearly exposed the gap between the present and the future.

“Nobody is in it; this is crazy,” a bewildered YPG officer was heard saying in a video of a bystander that went viral.

Cruise’s autonomous Chevy Bolt has been discontinued in San Francisco for failing to turn on its headlights. It stopped briefly for police, then took off, crossed an intersection and stopped in front of a Chinese restaurant, which Cruz later explained as “going to the nearest safe place to stop traffic as intended.”

The officer and two of his colleagues walked around the car, trying to open the doors, staring at the windows and lighting the flashlights inside. Eventually, according to Cruz and the SFPD, the officers called Cruz, who took over remote control of the car. No citation was issued.

Experts said the incident showed that self-driving car companies still had ways of detecting human-robot interactions – although some of the shortcomings could have been addressed with common sense.

Situations like this are sure to become more common now that Cruise, a subsidiary of General Motors, and Waymo, the self-driving unit of Alphabetical parent Google, both operate autonomous cars on California’s public roads with no one behind the wheel. .

The two companies are testing automated taxi rides for employees and select members of the public in San Francisco, whose twisting streets, steep hills, and abundance of cyclists and pedestrians provide a popular traffic training ground.

A fleet of cruise vehicles are seen at the company's parking lot in San Francisco in 2020.

A fleet of cruise vehicles are seen at the company’s parking lot in San Francisco in 2020.

Nick Otto / History

Bryant Walker Smith, a professor of law at the University of South Carolina and an associate researcher at the Stanford Center on Internet and Society, said. “As much as we think it’s future, we have to engage with the structures of the present and even the paradoxes of the past.”

Cruise has a detailed guide and video guide for first responders that says they should call 1-888-662-7103 when problems arise. Waymo has similar documentation and a contact number. Both said they had conducted training for first responders.

But for officers who haven’t read Cruise’s 24-page document or watch the 19-minute video, her cars appear to be falling short in effectively instructing people outside of how to reach a human.

Wendy Gu, a professor of information science at the Jacobs Technion Cornell Institute in Cornell Tech in New York and an expert on robot-vehicle interaction, said she should have been more clear about how to communicate with the vehicle and/or human support team. She’s done consulting work for Cruise.

“The police shouldn’t have walked around to find out,” she said.

Waymo, which has established years of operations in Phoenix, where it has a robust fleet of driverless automated taxis, said it has developed its interactions with first responders over time.

Waymo spokesman Nicholas Smith said in an email that the team of remote monitors “will be notified if police stop the car and will open the windows and communicate with the officer through the car’s audio system.”

Cruz provided a more detailed breakdown of the incident in response to questions from The Chronicle.

It added that all its cars can identify emergency vehicles by lights and sirens. In this case, her car spotted the lights of the police car and stopped in its lane. The company then said that remote cruise operators ordered it to stop, “at which point AV has determined the closest safe stopping point across the intersection.”

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