San Franciscans Keep Calling 911 About Baffling Self-Driving Car Behavior

Cruise receives the vast majority of complaints, including boxing in buses and trying to drive over fire hoses during active firefighting.
Cruise vehjicles blocking buses
Photos: SMFTA letter 
Screen Shot 2021-02-24 at 3
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People called 911 to report dangerous, traffic-clogging, or otherwise simply baffling self-driving car behavior for 92 separate incidents in San Francisco during the last six months of 2022, according to a letter sent by local transit officials to a state regulator.


The letter, signed by the directors of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, and the Mayor’s Office on Disability, opposes a huge service expansion requested by the two fully self-driving taxi services in the city, Cruise and Waymo. In particular, the authorities are worried by the “fundamental problems for the general public raised by Cruise AV performance.

Between May 29 and December 31, the city started getting a sharp increase in 911 calls about autonomous vehicles (AVs) blocking lanes and intersections, erratic driving, and “evasive maneuvers required by other road users,” according to the letter. These incidents ranged from lasting a few light cycles to several hours. According to the letter, 15 percent of reported cases involved multiple Cruise AVs “in clusters that obstructed multiple travel lanes and directions of travel.” Because these incidents happened between 10 pm and 6 am—the current limitations on operating hours—the blockades didn’t have the disruptive impact they might have if they occurred during the middle of the day or rush hour. In total, 92 separate incidents were bad enough that someone called 911, but the letter notes it could have been far more because they occur “when few travelers are on the streets to observe them.” A Cruise spokesperson says the company operates more than 100 AVs in San Francisco.


The letter also cites multiple examples where Cruise vehicles surrounded Muni buses preventing them from moving and causing delays, some which had been previously reported by local news services. If these incidents occurred during peak hours, as Cruise seeks permission to operate during, each incident alone would have delayed around 3,000 bus riders, the letter says.

Cruise vehicles have also interfered with fighting fires. The letter says that on June 12, a Cruise AV “ran over a fire hose that was in use at an active fire scene,” in violation of the California Vehicle Code. On January 21, 2023, a Cruise AV entered an active fire scene, drove towards the fire hoses on the ground, and failed to stop despite “efforts” made by the firefighters on scene to block it. They were “not able to do so,” the letter says, “until they shattered a front window of the Cruise AV.”

Cruise has also called 911 multiple times for “unresponsive” passengers who, when emergency crews showed up, turned out to be sleeping.

Cruise has a long history of shoddy performance and overstating its vehicle capabilities, which first came to light in a 2018 investigation by The Information. It has been the subject of multiple federal probes over AV crashes. Many of its San Francisco blockades have been the result of software crashes. WIRED reported an anonymous Cruise employee sent a letter in July to the California Utilities Commission, which regulates the deployment of AVs in the state, warning that the company loses contact with its driverless vehicles “with regularity.” Self-driving cars becoming a public nuisance due to shoddy software is the kind of scenario AV skeptics have been warning about since the concept gained widespread investor attention in the mid-2010s. 

The letter states that while the “large majority of unplanned travel lane AV stops reported through December 2022 involved Cruise AVs rather than Waymo vehicles,” it believes the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates the deployment of AVs in the state, doesn’t collect enough data, such as vehicle miles traveled in autonomous mode, to know to what degree this reflects better performance. The joint letter by the transit authorities and Mayor’s office argues that the combined performance of the company’s AVs have not been good enough to merit expanding service 24/7, letting the companies decide for themselves when and where to offer service. Instead, they argue for a continued incremental approach of gradually expanding service to more neighborhoods and times of day as performance improves.

In a written statement, a Cruise spokesperson told Motherboard, “Cruise’s safety record is publicly reported and includes having driven millions of miles in an extremely complex urban environment with zero life-threatening injuries or fatalities. We’re proud that the overwhelming majority of public comments—including from advocates in the disability community, small businesses and local community groups—support expanding Cruise’s all-electric driverless service to serve the full city.” Cruise told WIRED that the vehicle that had its windshield broken by firefighters was already stationary, and defended the company calling 911 on sleeping passengers “to ensure that passengers who are unresponsive are safe.” 

Correction: A previous version of this story stated Cruise operates 30 AVs in San Francisco based on information in the letter cited in the story. A Cruise spokesperson says it operates more than 100.