Cruise disputes claim that its autonomous vehicle delayed first responders


A Cruise self-driving car, which is owned by General Motors Corp, is seen outside the company’s headquarters in San Francisco.
Heather Somerville | Reuters

The company Cruise is pushing back against an accusation from the San Francisco Fire Department, which claims that one of the company’s autonomous vehicles delayed an ambulance after a deadly accident. 

According to SF Fire, on Aug. 14, a driver hit a pedestrian in the city at around 11 p.m. The department said emergency medical service crews faced a problem getting to the collision: two Cruise taxis blocking the road. 

That blockage, according to SF Fire, caused a delay in getting the pedestrian to the hospital, where they later died. 

In a report, the department wrote of the incident: “This delay, no matter how minimal, contributed to a poor patient outcome…The fact that Cruise autonomous vehicles continue to block ingress to critical 911 calls is unacceptable.”

But Cruise is pushing back on that narrative of events. A spokesperson for the company said videos from those AVs show a different story. 

“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,” the 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 wouldn’t share that video, saying that it was proprietary material.

But NBC Bay Area was able to review a nearly 13 minute video which is purportedly the incident in question. It appears to show what the company describes, including the ambulance managing to squeeze by the stopped Cruise car. 

The incident happened just four days after the California Public Utilities Commission approved an expansion for Cruise, as well as the company Waymo, allowing both to operate AVs at all hours in San Francisco. 

It’s a move Supervisor Aaron Peskin has been critical of. And while he couldn’t speak to the events on Aug. 14 , Peskin did tell NBC Bay Area there are now more than 70 documented incidents of AVs interfering with first responders. 

“In those cases seconds and minutes can make a difference in whether somebody bleeds out or is able to be resuscitated from a heart attack or other emergency,” he said. “And it’s not a question of ‘if,” it’s a question of ‘when.’ “

Peskin is asking the state for more regulation over the emerging AV industry. He said the city is set to talk to legislators and DMV leadership later this month.