After a number of concerning incidents involving its autonomous vehicles getting in the way of fire engines and ambulances, Cruise announced a set of software improvements Thursday aimed at "minimizing operational impact" for emergency responders.
The San Francisco Fire Department has made no secret of its hostility to autonomous vehicles, after a number of months in which AVs have disrupted their work in variously documented ways — stalling in front of firehouses and preventing the quick exit of a fire engine, for instance, and in one notable case in August, allegedly briefly keeping an ambulance from getting a critically wounded patient to a hospital.
Cruise has tended to push back on these complaints, citing human error and faulting other vehicles for most of these situations, and continuing to stress that AVs are safer, statistically, than human-driven cars.
Still, Cruise can't deny the bad press these stories have generated, and the company's robo-vehicles do still seem to be learning how to navigate irregular situations involving emergencies and emergency vehicles. Case in point: that Cruise car that had apparently edged too far into an intersection in August and was struck by a fire engine speeding by, injuring a passenger.
In an announcement Thursday posted to the company blog, Cruise says it has been having discussions "with police, Emergency Medical Services (EMS), fire officials and other city stakeholders and regulators to better understand their needs." And, "From those discussions, we’ve focused on minimizing operational impact, quickly exiting emergency scenes, and increasing predictability."
Some software upgrades have been made, Cruise says, which will cause the AVs to slow down earlier when a siren is detected, and to find "additional early stopping locations" before an intersection when a siren is nearby. The software also has enhancements to its audio detection capabilities, and its recognition of different siren types.
Further, the company says, the cars should now be able to better "predict if a fire truck will continue to drive through an intersection against a red light, while also factoring in the speed at which that will happen." And, "We’ve improved our existing Emergency Scene Recognition System to better detect such scenes earlier and from farther away."
The SFFD has been especially angry over situations in which AVs tried to or did drive over firehoses during fire responses, and Cruise says they're addressing this as well as the ability of its AVs to recognize caution tape, and "very low-lying deflated fire hoses."
Taking a notedly different tone from Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt — who said last month that San Francisco ought to be "rolling out the red carpet" for AVs and not complaining — Cruise Vice President of Global Government Affairs Prashanthi Raman gave a interview to the Chronicle about the software improvements.
"We really want to launch with communities and not at them,” Raman says. "At Cruise we take it very seriously … to continue those collaborative discussions from the beginning and throughout any necessary feedback to solve issues that are coming up."
Raman further adds that the mishaps with Cruise vehicles have been "rare events," and echoing what Vogt said earlier, "We can’t expect perfection, but we do believe that these [vehicles] will help reduce accidents on the roadways in the aggregate."
Photo via Cruise