A Woman Struck by Driverless Car in San Francisco Shows Uniquely a Dystopian Problem With Self-Driving Vehicles

Last week, a San Francisco woman was run over by a Cruise-operated robotaxi — and the car, itself, didn’t alert authorities of the fact a human being was trapped under its nearly 4,000lb heft.

After being “launched” by a collision involving a human-driven vehicle, a San Francisco woman sustained significant injuries after being struck by a self-driving car from Cruise last week.

According to the San Francisco Police Department, police officers responded to 5th and Market Streets Monday, October 3rd, at 9:31 p.m. and discovered a female pedestrian trapped under a Cruise vehicle; the woman was allegedly in the middle of 5th Street when the traffic light at Market Street turned green, and was subsequently struck by the human driver’s car, knocking her on the ground — and right in the path of a self-driving car from Cruise, which was positioned alongside the human-driven vehicle. The human driver fled the scene.

Per the San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD), on-site first responders had to use the “Jaws of Life” to lift the car off of the woman; she was trapped underneath it with no way of getting out. 

An eyewitness reported that the woman was frantic, calling for help. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Austin Tutone, a bicycle delivery person who saw the woman trapped underneath the Cruise car, reassured her as they waited for first responders — “I told her, ‘The ambulance is coming’ and that she’d be okay. She was just screaming.” His optimistic words didn’t lessen the load the self-driving Chevy Bolt’s rear axles were putting on her body.

Eventually, the victim was transported to a nearby hospital after sustaining “multiple traumatic injuries,” per the SFFD.

Later, District 3 Supervisor and President of the Board of Supervisors Aaron Peskin alleged that the Cruise-operated vehicle “dragged [the victim] underneath the car for approximately 20 feet, which was the source of her major injuries” in an interview with Forbes. The validity of Perskin’s claims has not been confirmed as of publishing by either Cruise or SFFD — largely in part because of an ongoing investigation into the crash.

Regardless of whether or not Peskin’s commentary proves true (which is by no means outside the realm of possibility, given past behavior from Cruise-operated vehicles), the fact remains that the female victim, whose identity remains unknown, is still in critical condition.

What’s also uncomfortably and glaringly clear is that a uniquely dystopian issue with self-driving cars is now front and center: Their lack of critical thinking in emergency situations, particularly pedestrian crashes.

It’s one thing to shuttle occupants from A to B in ostensible safety, but it’s another thing to navigate life-and-death situations that involve a human body doubling as a crumple zone.

San Francisco first responders descended on the prior Monday evening scene after eyewitnesses called 9-1-1; the self-driving car did not alert emergency crews.

The autonomous vehicle, which weights around 3,700 pounds left a General Motors factory — a heft that excludes any weight added from Cruise-installed radar instruments and various other kinds of retrofitting — rested on the woman’s body after running her over, unbothered. The only act of empathetic mercy the vehicle showed was putting on its hazard lights.

(SFFD Captain Justin Schorr told the Chronicle it appeared that once the Cruise car sensed something underneath its rear axle — in this case, a human woman — the car came to a limited halt, flashing its emergency lights; ons-tire firefighters obstructed some of the driverless car’s sensors — and only then was the Cruise’s control center altered of the situation. Cruise heeded the SFFD crew and then  “immediately disabled the car remotely.”)

As autonomous vehicles become more ubiquitous, these self-driving robotaxis will encroach further from well-populated cities and enter more suburban and even rural areas. Imagine if this above-mentioned scenario would’ve played out in, say, a sparsely populated suburban area. Or along a country road. Perhaps inside of a developing culdesac, where only one unit is complete and populated.

(I lived in such a neighborhood type in Argyle, Texas. Though our development was in a suburb of DFW, we didn’t have neighbors for nearly a year… and we’re surrounded by construction, instead.)

Given the exact same parameters as San Francisco’s recent Cruise disaster — which San Francisco police have noted they’ve not seen a crash involving injuries this degree of injury involving an autonomous car up until now — and there’s reason to believe the woman’s screams for help might’ve been unheeded. 

Cruise’s self-driving robotaxi wouldn’t reply to those please. It simply would continue collecting data. Only after some time had passed could a chance arise that Cruise’s control center could, theoretically, pick up on this life-and-death hypothetical.

Robotaxis aren’t the product of shoring up transit. They’re the product of covetousness — specifically in the tech sphere — that’s presented to us under the guise of innovation. The inherent problems connected with this spearheaded greed will bleed out of San Francisco as these become more widespread.

“San Francisco is in the unique position of being the guinea pig and the first testing ground for the deployment of AVs and soon they will be everywhere,” Peskin continued in Forbes. “This won’t be just San Francisco’s issue. This is really yet another example of what state and federal regulators and policymakers need to address before these things are deployed in cities everywhere.”

And let’s all hope the looming widespread adoption of these robotaxis won’t become synonymous with a need for local first responders to purchase additional Jaws of Life tools.

Photo: Courtesy of Cruise

1 Comment

  • Daniel Jones

    This would be relevant if humans were reliable in emergency situations. We are not though haha. The person who did this fled, and many drivers have done awful and janky things not knowing there was something attached to or underneath their car. This doesn’t mean giving autonomous cars blank cheques. But we will hamper efforts that could greatly reduce deaths if we compare these autonomous cars to a non existent reality where humans are perfect.

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