A Bus Driver Killed a Man, the City Blamed Tech

from activists and journalists to government officials, a sprawling web of disinformation has distorted the narrative around self-driving taxis — and now it’s being exposed
Sanjana Friedman

Yesterday, San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) and Fire Department (SFFD) released a joint statement announcing that the pedestrian who died in the South of Market neighborhood on August 14th had been struck and killed by a Muni bus. The statement, which described the man’s death as “an all-around heart breaking [sic] and tragic incident,” clarified that — contrary to initial reporting — the incident had nothing to do with the Cruise autonomous vehicles that happened to be present at the time of the accident. “Press reports, relying on an internal report from an SFFD staff member on the scene, have suggested that the San Francisco Fire Chief attributed the death of the pedestrian to Cruise AV interference with first responder operations. This is inaccurate: The San Francisco Fire Chief has not attributed this pedestrian death to Cruise AVs,” Stephen Chun, SFMTA’s spokesman, wrote. In other words, it wasn’t the Fire Chief who lied about the incident — it was someone else at the SFFD.

The statement marked the end of a protracted battle between, on one side, journalists and anti-AV activists who insisted that Cruise vehicles had blocked the egress of first responders rushing the man to the hospital and, on the other side, Cruise, which insisted (with video evidence) that their cars had immediately and appropriately yielded to ambulances. Though the city has now definitively rejected claims of Cruise’s involvement in the pedestrian’s death, the weeks-long, anti-AV press cycle fueled by the incident led, among other things, to a partial pause on the roll-out of AV in San Francisco; a barrage of anti-AV vandalism; and a wave of social media hysteria denouncing out-of-control ‘robotaxis.’ Here’s how it all happened.

On August 14, at around 11 pm, a homeless man was crossing a street in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood when he was hit by a bus. When first responders arrived on the scene and found the man unresponsive and bleeding heavily, they quickly transported him to the hospital. He was pronounced dead shortly after arrival.

The following day, one of the paramedics present on the scene submitted a report to the SFFD’s Deputy Chief of Operations claiming that a Cruise autonomous vehicle had blocked ambulances as first responders attempted to transport the man to the hospital. “When we arrived at scene, the only open lanes for egress from the call were blocked by (2) Cruise vehicles that had stopped and were not moving or leaving the scene. The [patient] was packaged for transport with life threatening injuries, but we were unable to leave the scene initially due to the Cruise vehicles not moving,” the paramedic, whose name has been redacted from the leaked report, wrote. “This delay, no matter how minimal, contributed to a poor [patient] outcome…the fact that Cruise autonomous vehicles continue to block ingress and egress to critical 911 calls is unacceptable.” 

Two days later, on August 16, San Francisco filed a motion with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) requesting a temporary suspension of the authorization allowing Cruise and Waymo to operate paid rides throughout the city at all hours of the day. The week before, the CPUC had voted 3-1 to lift all restrictions on Cruise and Waymo autonomous vehicle operations in San Francisco. “San Francisco will suffer serious harms from this expansion of driverless AV operations that will outweigh any potential harms from a minimal delay in commercial deployment Cruise [or Waymo] may experience,” City Attorney David Chiu wrote in his letter. On August 18, the California DMV announced that it was investigating “recent concerning incidents” involving Cruise vehicles and ordered the company to take half its autonomous vehicles off the roads. 

Two weeks later, Forbes broke the story of Cruise’s ‘involvement’ in the pedestrian’s death. “According to public records from the San Francisco Fire Department,” the journalist stated (citing the single eyewitness account mentioned above), “two Cruise autonomous vehicles (AVs) were blocking the ambulance [transporting the victim].” He subsequently acknowledged that “Cruise provided video which shows that one of the Cruise cars quickly left the scene, while another remained frozen at the intersection with a free lane to its right where traffic was moving,” but still framed the AVs’ involvement in the deadly incident as a “mystery.” SFFD Chief Jeanine Nicholson, speaking to Forbes, was unsparing in her criticism of AVs. “All a car has to do is stop somewhere and we’re screwed,” she said. “Seconds matter, when it comes to an emergency. A fire can double in size in a minute, or in a medical call, an extra minute literally means more of your heart will die.”

Outlets including the SF Standard and Chronicle quickly parroted the narrative pushed by Forbes. “Person Dies After Cruise Robotaxi Blocks San Francisco Ambulance, Fire Department Says,” wrote the Standard. Anti-AV activists on social media then amplified these claims on Twitter/X. “Another cursed crossover episode: Cruise robot cars delay emergency vehicles trying to save a pedestrian’s life at 7th and Harrison a few weeks ago,” wrote Safe Street Rebel, the activist outfit behind the push to “cone” autonomous vehicles. “@Cruise is now literally helping people get killed by interfering with emergency response vehicles,” wrote another user. 

Vandalism of autonomous vehicles, which had periodically occurred throughout the summer, also flared up after the incident. Anti-AV activists announced their intention to continue coning autonomous vehicles throughout the city, and this past Monday, a video of a masked man smashing a graffitied Cruise car with a hammer went viral on social media. 

But as on-scene video footage showed, and the city’s joint statement yesterday echoed, claims of Cruise’s responsibility in the fatal accident were false — and based entirely on a single, inaccurate eyewitness report. Why would a first responder distort the facts in an incident report sent to his superior? Why would the Fire Chief give an interview shortly afterwards in which she indirectly validates this distortion, but then insist, weeks later and through a PR agent, that she had never did? Maybe because a significant contingent of the city’s emergency response departments are involved in a concerted, union-driven effort to delay the roll-out of AV. Regardless, the takeaway for journalists here is clear: be skeptical of your sources, triple-check your facts, and don’t ever assume that your colleagues are doing the same. 

— Sanjana Friedman

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