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San Francisco's police, fire departments fret about push for more self-driving cars


Walk through San Francisco, and it is hard to miss those driverless cars prowling the city. They're decked out with rooftop cameras and sensors, and now they're facing unexpected resistance from the city's police and fire departments. NPR's Dara Kerr reports.

DARA KERR, BYLINE: Dozens of fire trucks raced to a massive blaze in a normally quiet neighborhood near Golden Gate Park back in February. As police cordoned off the surrounding area, a self-driving car with no human inside approached the scene.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: No, go back. No, I'ma (ph) pop a flare so it doesn't move and run over the water line.

KERR: That's police body camera footage from the incident that was obtained by San Francisco news site Mission Local. It shows officers struggling with how to deal with this driverless car.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Got a bit of a pickle. I got an autonomous vehicle, the Waymo. It's inching slowly and closely to the - one of the main water lines that the SF Fire just charged.

KERR: The police were able to get the car in park and wait until Waymo came and collected it. But this incident wasn't a one-off. The San Francisco Fire Department has tracked 55 similar episodes over the last six months.


JEANINE NICHOLSON: And our folks cannot be paying attention to an autonomous vehicle when we've got ladders to throw.

KERR: That's San Francisco fire chief Jeanine Nicholson at a meeting about the issue on Monday.


NICHOLSON: Again, I will reiterate, it is not our job to babysit their vehicles.

KERR: Nicholson says five of those incidents happened in just the last week. Some of these cars have run through yellow emergency tape. Others have blocked firehouse driveways. Cops have had to smash the windows just to disable the cars. Sometimes the vehicles refuse to move, so fire trucks have to back up and take another road. Nicholson says in an emergency, time is critical.


NICHOLSON: Every second can make the difference. A fire can double in size in one minute. If we are blocked by an autonomous vehicle, that could lead to more harm to the people in that building, to the housing overall and to my first responders.

KERR: San Francisco is a testing ground for self-driving cars. Most are run by the companies Cruise, which is part of GM, and Waymo, which is owned by Google parent Alphabet. Nearly 500 roll through the city's hilly streets every day. Some cars have safety drivers. Others are completely empty. Many offer rides like a taxi. Both Cruise and Waymo acknowledge the incidents with emergency vehicles but haven't answered directly why their technology is responding this way.


PRASHANTHI RAO RAMAN: Cruise AVs have now driven over 3 million miles safely, the vast majority of which go unnoticed.

KERR: That's Cruise's Prashanthi Rao Raman speaking at the meeting on Monday. She said driverless cars are safer than human-driven ones when it comes to passenger safety. California's transportation regulator voted this week to let Cruise and Waymo expand their car programs. Now they can pick up passengers like a taxi at all times of the day. Lauren Renaud of San Francisco is opposed to this decision.

LAUREN RENAUD: It doesn't feel like the technology is ready to be on public streets, and that makes me nervous.

KERR: Hundreds of people have written public comments to the regulator. The vast majority say they don't want self-driving cars on the streets.


KERR: Protesters also gathered in San Francisco on Monday to speak out against more autonomous vehicles, which they call robotaxis.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Stop the robotaxis. Stop the robotaxis.

KERR: Many of them echoed the words of Fire Chief Nicholson, who's been repeatedly saying that the self-driving cars aren't ready for prime time. Dara Kerr, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF GARY NUMAN SONG, "CARS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Dara Kerr
Dara Kerr is a tech reporter for NPR. She examines the choices tech companies make and the influence they wield over our lives and society.
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