San Francisco authorities and the company Cruise have offered conflicting accounts of an incident in which the fire department said two of the company’s robotaxis delayed an ambulance transporting a patient with critical injuries who later died at a hospital.
The company denied the city’s claims and shared video with the Guardian that shows one of the vehicles quickly leaving the area. Reports of the incident have garnered outrage in San Francisco, which has been battling over the use of robotaxis vehicles in the city.
Concerns over driverless taxis in the city have been growing for months amid reports that the vehicles have caused mayhem, blocking thoroughfares and getting in the way of first responders.
In an incident on 14 August, first-responders were treating a pedestrian who had been struck by a vehicle and had life-threatening injuries with significant bleeding. Two autonomous Cruise vehicles had stopped in nearby lanes and were not moving, “blocking ingress and egress”, according to a San Francisco fire department report obtained by Forbes.
As the emergency crews loaded the patient into an ambulance, the vehicles remained stopped in the two lanes and police attempts to takeover the vehicles manually were unsuccessful, the report states. The fire department had to locate a police officer on scene and ask him to move to his vehicle in order to leave the scene, which the report states “further delayed patient care”.
“This delay, no matter how minimal, contributed to a poor [patient] outcome,” an unidentified first-responder wrote in the report. “In any significant traumatic event, time is of the essence to transport the [patient] to definitive care in order to give them the best possible chance at survival.”
Cruise disputes the fire department’s claims and offers a different account of what happened. The vehicles encountered the emergency scene, the company said in a statement, and one left the area when a stoplight turned green while the other stopped “to yield to first responders” who were directing traffic. During the entire period the vehicle was stopped, traffic was “unblocked and flowing” to the right of the robotaxi.
“The ambulance behind the AV had a clear path to pass the AV as other vehicles, including another ambulance, proceeded to do. As soon as the victim was loaded into the ambulance, the ambulance left the scene immediately and was never impeded from doing so by the AV,” spokesperson Tiffany Testo said in a statement.
Video of the incident provided by Cruise and viewed by the Guardian shows three Cruise vehicles, along with other cars, near the scene as first responders are arriving. Two autonomous vehicles leave the area – one continues up the street, away from first responders, where it briefly pauses before continuing on.
A stalled Cruise vehicle remained on scene with cars – including an ambulance –passing in the lane to the right of the vehicle. The ambulance assisting the victim did not pass to the right of the vehicle and instead drove on its left side.
The patient died 20 to 30 minutes after reaching the hospital, according to the fire department’s report.
Testo noted that the patient’s death was caused by a human driver, and pointed to the company’s safety record.
“During the course of more than 3 million miles of fully autonomous driving in San Francisco we’ve seen an enormous number of emergency vehicles – more than 168,000 interactions just in the first seven months of this year alone,” she said in a statement. “Our technology is always improving, and we maintain an open line of communication with first responders to receive feedback and discuss specific incidents to improve our response.”
Last month, California regulators had allowed Cruise and the Google spinoff Waymo to expand and operate robotaxis throughout San Francisco at all hours. The companies had previously been operating a small fleet of vehicles without drivers during off-peak hours.
Just a week later, Cruise agreed to cut its robotaxi fleet in the city in half as authorities investigate two crashes.
Waymo and Cruise have disputed some accounts of the vehicles causing problems and argued the technology is safe and beneficial.