Pedestrian Trapped Under Cruise Vehicle in San Francisco
On Monday, a pedestrian ended up being trapped beneath an autonomous test vehicle owned by Cruise. The incident took place in San Francisco (Fifth Avenue just south of Market Street) and has already become the subject of some rampant speculation as the company hopes to avoid another public relations nightmare.
Cruise quickly put out a series of statements via Twitter (now X) claiming the pedestrian was actually tossed in front of their robotaxi after being struck by a hit-and-run vehicle that was traveling in the accompanying lane. While the investigation is technically ongoing, numerous media outlets have run with the premise after having seen the on-board footage.
According to local outlet KRON4, police reported that they found the victim trapped under the autonomous car after arriving on the scene at about 9:30 at night — adding that a human-driven vehicle “may have been initially involved in the collision.”
Firefighters were able to communicate with Cruise operators before crews used heavy rescue tools to lift the autonomous vehicle, the San Francisco Fire Department said. The woman was suffering “multiple traumatic injuries” and was pulled to safety, according to fire officials. SFPD officers rendered aid before the woman was hospitalized. The current condition of the victim is unknown at this time.
The Cruise car was uninhabited at the time of the collision and remained at the scene. In a statement to KRON4, Cruise said its vehicle “braked aggressively to minimize the impact” and also suggested there was an initial impact from a hit-and-run driver. “Our heartfelt concern and focus is the wellbeing of the person who was injured and we are actively working with police to help identify the responsible driver,” Cruise said.
Subsequent reporting from other outlets has been more willing to entertain the claims provided by Cruise and they may indeed be true. Police have said that they’re working with the company to get to the bottom of what happened and Cruise has said it’s sharing video footage with the SFPD as part of the investigation.
The relevant video has also reportedly been seen by a few media outlets, with NBC Bay Area's Bigad Shaban effectively claiming that things happened more-or-less as Cruise has said. But there’s a lot of bad blood between San Francisco residents and the recently expanded robotaxi services. Some are already demanding the footage be released to the public immediately.
While there have been loads of unsavory encounters between humans and autonomous test vehicles, we haven’t seen any pedestrians seriously injured since the fatal incident from March of 2018 where a Volvo-badged test mule owned by Uber Technologies struck a woman pushing her bicycle across the road. At the time, every company involved blamed everyone else with Uber being the preferred target.
Your author threw the brunt of the blame at the vehicle’s safety driver and speculated that this was more evidence of how advanced driving aids encourage operator disengagement. While the victim had opted to traverse the street outside the designated crosswalk, footage from the incident clearly showed the driver looking down at their phone in the moments leading up to the fatal accident. In July of 2023, that driver pleaded guilty to one count of endangerment and was sentenced to three years’ probation.
Uber probably was culpable to some degree, as its technology simultaneously failed. But the courts decided it couldn’t be held liable after Arizona prosecutors decided not to go after the company in 2019. It was decided that the onus was primarily on the human operator and established a nice precedent for companies hoping to field autonomous vehicles on public roads.
But the Cruise vehicle didn’t have a human safety driver — making things a little more difficult.
The crash has reportedly yet to be filed with the Department of Motor Vehicles, which requires all AV companies to report collisions. But it’s presumably just a matter of time before that happens.
There are a lot of different angles to look at this from. While the San Francisco Fire Department and numerous city officials have accused Cruise vehicles of running amok, the San Francisco Police Department has frequently been accused of using Cruise AVs as mobile surveillance units with locals accusing both entities of violating citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights. While the details on exactly how that works are quite muddy, due to how little information either party is willing to share about the matter, it’s been made crystal clear that Cruise has handed over footage without law enforcement going through the proper procedures.
This has resulted in accusations that the SFPD is protecting Cruise in regard to the latest incident. However, those claims have been made on some shaky ground and revolve primarily around the fact that nobody has bothered to release the relevant footage to the public. With so much preexisting ire against San Francisco’s autonomous vehicles, citizens are ready to assume the worst without the accompanying evidence.
There are also loads of legal issues present that don't have a lot of legal precedent. When a human driver messes up and there's solid supportive evidence, it's relatively easy to decide who is culpable. But adding in a bunch of self-driving features pushes things into a foggy area that becomes downright unprecedented once flesh-and-blood drivers are taken out of the equation.
Meanwhile, Cruise is doing its utmost to downplay the matter — which is to be expected.
As with the fatal Uber crash, it’ll probably be some time before we have a clear understanding of what actually happened here. It was days before video footage of the Uber incident was shared and even then it was months before speculation on the topic settled down. The only thing that seems certain is the fact that the robotaxi ended up being entangled with a pedestrian for some time, requiring the fire department to launch a rescue mission.
That woman's status and name are currently unknown. However, it was reported that she had sustained multiple traumatic injuries at the time of the accident.
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