An SFPD officer drove over a self-driving car. What the viral event means for SF’s future

When a traffic officer stopped a robotic car on the streets of San Francisco this month, the interaction clearly revealed the divide between present and future.

“There is no one in it; this is crazy, ”a confused SFPD officer was heard saying in a spectator video that went viral.

The autonomous Chevy Bolt from San Francisco’s Cruise was stopped for not having the headlights on. It briefly stopped for police, then took off, crossed an intersection, and stopped in front of a Chinese restaurant, which Cruise later explained as it went “to the nearest safe stop for the intended traffic stop.”

The officer and two colleagues crowded around the vehicle, tried to open the doors, looked in through the windows and shone with flashlights inside. Eventually, according to Cruise and SFPD, the officers called Cruise, who took the remote control of the car. No quotation was issued.

Experts said the incident showed that companies with autonomous cars still have a way to go to find out about human-robot interactions – although some shortcomings could have been remedied with basic common sense.

Situations like this are bound to be more common now that both Cruise, a spin-off from General Motors, and Waymo, the self-driving unit of Google’s parent company Alphabet, drive autonomous cars on California public roads with no one behind the wheel.

Both companies are testing robo-taxi rides for employees and select members of the public in San Francisco, whose winding streets, steep hills and abundance of cyclists and pedestrians make up a famous “bony” traffic training ground.

The fleet of cruise vehicles will be seen in the company’s parking lot in San Francisco on Wednesday, December 9, 2020. General Motors’ subsidiary Cruise said on Wednesday that it is testing up to five truly driverless cars in San Francisco, a milestone in their development of robotic cars.

Nick Otto / Special for The Chronicle

Robot car companies “try to navigate regimes full of uncertainty and imperfection in the small dances between law enforcement and a vehicle,” said Bryant Walker Smith, who teaches law at the University of South Carolina and is a visiting researcher at Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society. “As futuristic as we think we are, we need to engage with the structures of today and even the anachronisms of the past.”

Cruise has a detailed manual and video guide for first aiders who say they should call 1-888-662-7103 when problems arise. Waymo has similar documentation and a number to call. Both said they are conducting training for first aiders.

But for officers who have not read Cruise’s 24-page document or seen its 19-minute video, its cars obviously lack a clear enough way – perhaps a printed map on the dashboard? – to instruct people outside of them how to reach a human being.

It should have been more obvious how to communicate with the car and / or its human back-up team, said Wendy Ju, professor of information science at the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute at Cornell Tech in New York and expert in interaction between robots and vehicles . . She has done consulting work for Cruise.

“The police should not have had to search around to find out,” she said.

Waymo, which has reaped many years of operation in Phoenix, where it has a robust robo-taxi fleet without a driver, said it has developed its interaction with first aiders over time.

A team of remote monitors “will be notified if a vehicle is stopped by police and will immediately roll down windows and communicate with the officer through the sound system of the car,” Waymo spokesman Nicholas Smith said in an email.

Cruise provided a more detailed overview of the incident in response to questions from The Chronicle.

All its cars can identify emergency vehicles by their lights and sirens, it says. In this case, its car spotted the light of the police car and stopped in its lane. Remote cruise operators then asked it to pull over “at what point the AV identified the nearest safe pullover site across the intersection,” the company said.

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