Around 2 a.m. on March 19, Adam Wood, a San Francisco firefighter on duty, received a 911 call and rushed to the city’s Mission neighborhood to aid a male who was facing a medical emergency. However, while attempting to transport the patient to the hospital, Mr. Wood encountered an unexpected obstacle – a driverless vehicle operated by Waymo, an autonomous car company owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet.
With no human driver to instruct to move out of the way, Mr. Wood spoke through a device in the car to a remote operator. Another autonomous Waymo car later arrived and obstructed the other side of the street, leading to a delay of seven minutes in the emergency response.
This experience shed light on how self-driving taxis are starting to impact city services. In San Francisco and Austin, Texas, where passengers can hail autonomous vehicles, the cars have slowed down emergency response times, caused accidents, increased congestion, and added to the workloads of local officials.
San Francisco documented more than 600 self-driving vehicle incidents from June 2022 to June 2023, while Austin reported 52 autonomous car incidents in a short period. To address these challenges, both cities have allocated resources to develop policies and track incidents related to autonomous cars.
Moreover, the expansion of robotaxi services has resulted in new safety concerns for cities. Some cities are creating additional training for firefighters and incorporating safety issues related to driverless cars into their daily operations.
Despite these issues, some cities have experienced a smoother transition to self-driving cars. Phoenix, where Waymo has operated autonomous taxi services since 2020, has seen positive feedback from residents.
While Waymo, Cruise, and Zoox have worked closely with city officials and continue to improve their vehicles, the regulatory structure for self-driving cars is still evolving. With the rapid expansion of autonomous vehicles, it is anticipated that more cities will need to address similar challenges in the near future.