Protestors gathered Monday outside Cruise’s headquarters in San Francisco after reports of one of its robotaxis blocking an ambulance with a patient on board who later died.
The incident, which the San Francisco Fire Department reported last week, happened on August 14, when a driver hit a pedestrian in the city around 11 p.m. The department said emergency responders had trouble getting from the collision to the hospital because two Cruise robotaxis blocked the road. According to the report, the blockage caused a delay in getting the pedestrian to the hospital, where they later passed away.
Cruise denied the accusation that its robotaxis hindered the ambulance from getting away from the emergency scene, and video evidence shown to TechCrunch mostly backs that claim.
The event occurred days after Cruise and its main competitor Waymo were awarded permits from California regulators to expand their robotaxi services throughout San Francisco 24/7. The hearing to determine the permit expansions had been delayed twice amid mounting opposition to offering the companies free rein. Residents, ride-hail and taxi drivers and city agencies called out Cruise and Waymo after numerous instances of robotaxis malfunctioning and blocking the flow of traffic, sometimes for hours.
Aside from causing traffic delays, many San Franciscans feared that stalled robotaxis could impede the work of emergency responders.
“The patient was packaged for transport with life-threatening injuries, but we were unable to leave the scene initially due to the Cruise vehicles not moving,” reads the report, first reported by Forbes. “The fact that Cruise autonomous vehicles continue to block ingress and egress to critical 911 calls is unacceptable.”
UPDATE: The SFFD has since walked back on this claim, saying that the San Francisco Fire Chief has not attributed the pedestrian death to Cruise AVs, despite the report of an officer on the scene.
In a statement, Cruise pushed back against the fire department’s statement, saying its vehicle did not impede the ambulance from getting to the hospital and calling the department’s statement “not accurate.” A spokesperson for the company also called out the irony of pinning the pedestrian’s death on Cruise, when the pedestrian was hit by a human driver.
“The first vehicle promptly clears the area once the light turns green and the other stops in the lane to yield to first responders who are directing traffic,” a Cruise spokesperson wrote in a statement. “Throughout the entire duration the AV is stopped, traffic remains unblocked and flowing to the right of the AV. The ambulance behind the AV had a clear path to pass the AV as other vehicles, including the ambulance, proceeded to do so. 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.”
Cruise showed video of the event to TechCrunch, and we can confirm the scene happened more or less in the manner Cruise describes.
There were indeed two Cruise vehicles at the scene, alongside other cars trying to make room for first responders. One of the Cruise vehicles looked to be somewhat in the way of a fire truck, clumsily moving out of its path and, eventually, through the intersection where the pedestrian had been struck. This happened before the ambulance arrived. When the ambulance arrived, it parked behind the second Cruise vehicle, which had stopped just before the intersection in the second to the right lane of a four-lane street. A law enforcement officer stood in front of the Cruise vehicle directing traffic, and cars could be seen driving in the far right lane past the robotaxi — all the while, first responders are addressing the pedestrian and putting them in the ambulance.
The video showed the first responders getting into the ambulance and backing up slightly to get distance from the parked Cruise vehicle, then maneuvering to the left of the vehicle seconds later.
The Cruise vehicle was not stalled, according to a spokesperson, but didn’t move through the intersection because of the police officer standing in the middle of it. Cruise’s prediction algorithm is trained to always give right of way to pedestrians, and so the AV couldn’t advance at the time. While this situation calls into question how well the AVs are able to read hand gestures from emergency responders, it’s clear that the robotaxi didn’t hinder the ambulance’s path in a significant way.
That said, if the street had been a one-way, single-lane road, an indecisive robotaxi parked at the intersection would have definitely been a hindrance.
The fire department did not respond in time to TechCrunch to provide more information.
Cruise’s problems are mounting in San Francisco
Despite the fact that blood does not appear to be on Cruise’s hands in this instance, the pedestrian death and Cruise’s proximity to it are part of a growing list of incidents hanging over the company like a black cloud, giving fuel to the opposition.
Protestors on Monday were seen calling for the shutdown of Cruise, as well as Waymo, with signs that read “No Mo Robos” and “Greed Kills.” Aside from public safety and traffic concerns, protestors expressed fears of robotaxis displacing hundreds of thousands of jobs in San Francisco and beyond. During the protest, loud music began to play from inside the company offices, drowning out the protests.
Since Cruise got the greenlight to expand in San Francisco, the company has been plagued by a series of public incidents.
On August 16, 10 Cruise robotaxis stalled, creating a gridlock in North Beach for about 20 minutes during one of the city’s biggest music festivals. A spokesperson told TechCrunch that the vehicles stopped because there were too many pedestrians blocking their path. When that happens, a remote operator gets involved to help navigate the car out of the way. But due to the high density of crowds with cell phones, there was a lag between the remote operator and the vehicles.
Just two days later, another Cruise vehicle drove into wet cement and got stuck. The San Francisco Department of Public Works said the paving project had been properly marked off with cones and there were workers with flags at each end of the block.
That same week, a Cruise robotaxi was involved in a collision with an emergency vehicle that left a passenger injured. Cruise tweeted about the crash, saying one of its Chevy Bolt EVs entered an intersection on a green traffic light and was struck by the emergency vehicle that appeared to be en route to an emergency scene. A video posted by FriscoLive415 that includes police scanner information shows the airbags deployed in the vehicle and the passenger was complaining of a headache.
As a result, the California Department of Motor Vehicles requested that Cruise immediately reduce its robotaxi fleet by 50% in San Francisco while it conducts an investigation into the company.
On August 24, a Cruise car got into another crash in San Francisco when it was apparently attempting a left turn from the middle lane and collided with a construction backhoe. Cruise said the construction vehicle hit its AV. No injuries were reported.
Cruise is actively expanding to new cities, giving the technology more opportunities to learn and improve. But with those improvements will come mistakes and missteps, which will only continue as Cruise enters new markets.