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Improving emergency vehicle and first responder interactions

In the rapidly evolving world of transportation, autonomous vehicles are no longer just a vision of the future; they're a reality on our roads. The tragic fact is that over 40,000 of our loved ones are lost annually on American roads. While we’ve regrettably grown desensitized to this loss of life on roadways, that is the equivalent of one commercial airliner crashing every day with over one hundred people on board. Cruise aims to challenge this status quo, and the data demonstrate that autonomous vehicles have the potential to dramatically reduce these fatalities and usher in a safer future.  

In emergency situations, even we humans find ourselves under stress, acting differently than usual. Consequently, besides navigating the actual emergency, our autonomous vehicles must also anticipate and adapt to the unpredictable behavior of human drivers in such contexts. With over 5 million miles of driverless experience, our AVs have demonstrated their ability to enhance road safety versus status quo human driving. First responders also play a vital role in the health and safety of our communities and share in our mission of saving lives. We recognize the unique challenges first responders may face when interacting with an autonomous vehicle that has no driver present. We strive to be a good partner, and leverage our technology to help support those who serve the community. 

Although incidents are rare, our teams stand ready to address any concern that is raised to us and are committed to continuously improving our technology and operations to ensure greater safety and reliability on our roads. As part of that process, we work in close communication with police, Emergency Medical Services (EMS), fire officials and other city stakeholders and regulators to better understand their needs, and how we can improve. From those discussions, we’ve focused on minimizing operational impact, quickly exiting emergency scenes, and increasing predictability. Here are some of the key innovations:

  • Preemptive AV slowing during siren detection: Our AVs are designed to recognize emergency vehicle sirens and lights and yield to them while following traffic rules. To enhance this capability, our AVs now start to proactively slow down even earlier, to 70% of the posted speed limit at an early indication of a nearby siren when the emergency vehicles are not yet visible. 

  • Improved emergency vehicle prediction behavior: We enhanced the AV’s ability to 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. 

  • Intersection stop regions: When approaching intersections, we’ve upgraded our system to identify additional early stopping locations if the AV detects either lights or sirens. 

  • Emergency scene recognition: We've also improved the technology our AVs use to recognize an emergency scene. We’ve improved our existing Emergency Scene Recognition System to better detect such scenes earlier and from farther away, 

  • Parked emergency vehicle bypassing: We’ve improved the AV’s design to more effectively bypass double-parked emergency vehicles to help prevent the AV from getting stuck behind such emergency vehicles and blocking traffic

  • Enhanced audio detection: As part of our continuous improvements, we are enhancing the car's existing siren detection capability to be able to more rapidly detect a much larger diversity of different siren types & variations. This improvement will ultimately help our cars better determine if an emergency vehicle is nearby, and how best to respond. 

  • Multiple alert notifications: We have worked closely with police and fire to find solutions to be notified of emergency situations. We have set up email alerts directly from San Francisco Emergency Services for emergency scenes that need to be avoided. In addition, dispatch can call our teams 24/7 with updates if necessary. These new outreach methods build off of the already existing critical support line that’s been available to first responders. 

  • Fire hose and caution tape detection: Earlier this year, we rolled out product improvements that enhance identification of fire hoses and caution tape. We are also improving our ability to identify very low-lying deflated fire hoses. 

While these changes further improve our interactions, there may be times when unique and unpredictable situations are unavoidable. So we have made operational modifications that can aid the AV to get out of the way as quickly as possible:

  • Improved scene exit: Remote assistance advisors have always worked to resolve issues expeditiously, but we have made changes to enhance their abilities to clear the scene even more quickly.

  • Conditional routing: Improved tooling capabilities for our remote assistance advisors to assist with AV routing and maneuvering in situations such as following the directions given by law enforcement. 

  • First responder emergency access: In emergency situations, our teams will allow first responders to access the AV and manually move the vehicle.

Through continued training with law enforcement, firefighters, and EMS we can leverage our cooperative relationship to educate and receive feedback. Our goal is to enhance the AV's responsiveness in various emergency situations and ensure clear understanding and predictability of the car’s behavior.

Engaging in open communication with first responders has always been a priority for us, and we’re eager to continue our collaboration with them. We are steadfast in our commitment to ensuring that first responders can trust in and understand the behavior of our vehicles during emergency situations.Their invaluable insights and feedback are pivotal, and our teams are always prepared to respond to their concerns. Guided by our unwavering focus on safety, we will continue to strive to enhance our technology.