In Austin, public safety officials have complained that self-driving vehicles have frozen in traffic—a phenomenon also seen in San Francisco—of “near miss” incidents in which they say vehicles got too close to emergency scenes, and that the cars don’t adequately respond to traffic enforcement officers’ hand signals, according to a log obtained by WIRED through a public records request. Autonomous vehicle companies have “just been doing what they do, and I don’t fault them for that,” says André Jordan, a division chief in the Austin Fire Department. But he adds that “we care about our people and that they are out in harm’s way.” Self-driving cars, Jordan says, “affect all three Austin public safety agencies a lot.”
In California cities and Austin, where city control over autonomous vehicles is preempted by state laws, a trend has emerged: Cities say they need more data from the vehicles’ operators.
In Austin, officials would love access to the detailed 3D maps that allow vehicles like those operated by Cruise to navigate their streets, and to receive safety data from the vehicles—including where and when the robots brake hard, and how many times the technology needs human intervention, says Castignoli. Austin officials would also like to know more about the demographics of people being transported by self-driving cars, in part to ensure that companies are serving people with disabilities.
In Los Angeles in November, when Waymo began offering limited self-driving service in the area, Mayor Karen Bass asked state regulators to slow the introduction of self-driving vehicles into the city, citing first responders’ issues in San Francisco. LA “is equipped with the tools to effectively regulate AV service within its jurisdiction, and should determine the requirements for future deployment to maximize the benefits of new transportation technologies and mitigate harm across our diverse communities,” Bass wrote. In a statement, LA Department of Transportation spokesperson Colin Sweeney said the city also coordinates a mayor-directed task force for officials to discuss AV-related issues internally and with companies.
More cities are being pulled into the tricky position that Bass and some other local leaders are chafing against. Last year, Mississippi became the latest state to pass a law preempting municipal control over autonomous vehicle regulations. Kentucky’s governor vetoed a similar law, but it will likely return this year. So will a Washington state law that is stuck in committee.
Jeff Farrah, CEO of lobbying group the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association, which counts Waymo, Cruise, and other self-driving developers in its membership, says keeping motor vehicle regulation authority firmly in states’ hands is consistent with how vehicles have been regulated in the past. “Cities have a role to play in enforcing traffic laws, but life-saving AV technology cannot be scaled if dozens of cities are enacting contradictory regulations,” he says.
Seattle disagrees. The city is a test bed for vehicles in development from Amazon-owned Zoox and chipmaker Nvidia, and is one of the only US cities that runs its own autonomous vehicles test permitting program. City staff have pushed back on proposed state preemption laws for Washington state, arguing that local government should be able to set performance standards for self-driving car companies, and to require them to submit detailed data about their operations.