Police cars are pictured.
Gene Blevins/Reuters

Before self-driving cars take over the road, first responders need to know what they’ll do in an emergency.

On a sunny June afternoon in Chandler, Arizona, more than a dozen police and emergency vehicles paced up and down a mostly empty street, with their sirens blaring and emergency lights flashing. All eyes, though, were on the handful of self-driving cars that shared the road. Some drove in front of a fire truck; others cruised alongside police motorcycles and unmarked cars. Spectators, including Police Lieutenant David Ramer, watched in anticipation as the cars decided when to pull over and when to yield.

For the hours-long demonstration, Ramer spent three months coordinating with Alphabet’s Waymo to find the right time, place, and fleet of vehicles to help the company train its cars to recognize and respond properly to emergency vehicles. This is a task most human drivers have yet to get right, and still, it’s an essential one for machines to master before they can take over on the road.

“Emergency vehicles [in Arizona] are supposed to stay in the fast lane on the left, and everyone is supposed to slowly pull to the right,” Ramer says. “Very, very rarely does that happen; most people panic and park right there.”

So he welcomes the department’s partnership with Waymo, which according to a 43-page safety report published this month, is creating a “library of sights and sounds” to feed into its software.

As more autonomous and semi-autonomous cars find their way onto public roads, law enforcement officers and first responders are figuring out how to handle them in collisions or during traffic stops. It was only two years ago that a police officer in Mountain View, California, pulled over a car only to find that there was no driver inside (there was a passenger, however). The incident invited jokes and snickers on the internet, but also raised serious questions.

“How do those first responders know if this thing is an automated vehicle rather than a driver vehicle, and how do you know that it is fully off?” asks James Hedlund, a consultant for the Governor's Highway Safety Association who previously worked at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “How do you know what it's doing, what it’s thinking?”

A self-driving Volvo involved in a collision in Tempe, Arizona.
In March 2017, an Uber self-driving SUV flipped on its side in a collision in Tempe, Arizona. (Tempe Police Department via AP)

Since then, there have been several, more serious incidents that have called police, firefighters, and paramedics to the scene, from a high-speed collision in Arizona that flipped an autonomous Uber vehicle on its side to a fatal crash in Florida between a truck and a semi-autonomous Tesla.

In fact, Hedlund says, the hardest questions come even before the arrival of fully autonomous, so-called Level 5 vehicles. (Most have only reached Level 2, meaning the car can automatically steer, accelerate, and decelerate, but a driver has a to be alert and ready to take control of the wheel. Recently Audi introduced the world’s first Level 3 AV.)

“It’s Level 3 that is the real tricky one,” he says. Much like in a Level 2 vehicle, the system in a Level 3 AV will steer and accelerate on its own. But in this case, the driver won't need to monitor the road under certain conditions, allowing him or her to be truly hands-free. “Was the driver informed that he or she had to take over?” he continues. “If so, did the driver really take over?

At least one company is actively working with first responders on those questions. In the same report that highlighted Waymo’s partnership with Chandler, the company also offers a glimpse at its collaboration efforts with fire and police departments in cities where they test their cars. Those cities, according to the report, can get on-site training for their officers and first responders on how to identify and assess self-driving cars after a collision, as well as “a line of communication for further engagement.” (Waymo has not responded to CityLab’s request to elaborate.)

Getting AVs out on the road has never been just about the technology; policymakers, researchers, and safety advocates have been going back and forth about how they should be regulated, and what traffic laws should look like in the future. And at least in early conversations, it seemed like law enforcement agencies were largely left out of the discussion. Last September, policy guidance from the Department of Transportation urged local officials to involve police and other first responders when considering whether to let companies test AVs in their state, and to train them on potential hazards. At the same time, as Car and Driver magazine noted, when the DOT formed a federal advisory committee in January focused on automation, law enforcement experts weren’t included.

Yet, experts are already speculating that the age of AVs will change policing, and what the social implications of those changes may be. For one thing, a report by the Marshall Project predicts that it would be the end of traffic stops, which would also mean the end of so-called pretext stops, in which “officers stop a motorist for a minor violation in order to investigate a potentially more serious crime.”

Other big questions remain unanswered, too, such as this one posed by the International Association of the Chiefs of Police in their publication, the Police Chief:

One area of particular concern is the issue of law enforcement’s access to the autonomous vehicle control systems. During a recent presentation on autonomous vehicle technology … one of the first questions asked by a member of the audience was whether or not regulations would mandate a “kill switch” to enable law enforcement agencies to shut down the vehicles if needed.

In the meantime, the more common tasks like filing crash reports and issuing DUIs will be tweaked in some ways. And first responders should be a part of the conversation as much as the companies and local policy makers. “The initial challenges for AV development were technological—just trying to get the doggone thing to work,” says Hedlund “Now the challenges are how to integrate it into the road, driver, and pedestrian systems, which includes a lot of crazy things [the companies] need to be responsible for, and law enforcement is key there.”

The good news, he adds, is that the dynamic is changing. Some cities like Chandler have reached out to their police and fire departments before approving any tests on public roads. And there are all sorts of incentives—like avoiding liability—for companies to follow Waymo’s lead in working with first responders.

Ramer acknowledges a lot of the changes will be a result of trial and error. For now, his biggest challenge is fully understanding how autonomous vehicles work. He says his department hasn’t been offered Waymo’s on-site training, but that his door will always be open—to any company looking for a partner.

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