Reda Riddle-Bigler heard about the autonomous vehicles deployed throughout the metro Phoenix area years ago. Sometimes she’d see the cars, with elaborate sensors affixed to their roofs, driving along the road.

But it wasn’t until May, when she received a promotion to central district commander with the Phoenix Fire Department, that she understood self-driving technology could present challenges in her role as a first responder.

“It was a realization, all of the sudden, that these vehicles are everywhere,” she said. “That’s when I made the connection that this means something to me.”

As autonomous vehicles take to roads across the country in both pilot programs and limited commercial service operations, first responders like Riddle-Bigler are reaching similar realizations. Once they start thinking about AVs, questions on the behavior of the vehicle and emergency scenarios abound.

That’s where Rob Patrick comes in. A longtime special operations commander with California Highway Patrol, Patrick now serves as a first responder specialist for self-driving technology company Waymo, a Google subsidiary that expanded its operations throughout metro Phoenix this year. First responders often turn to him for answers.

Earlier this week, Waymo applied for the necessary permit to begin driverless commercial service in San Francisco.

Patrick, 59, trains police officers and firefighters on the nuances involved with Waymo’s self-driving technology and autonomous driving operations. Since starting in April 2021, he has conducted more than 150 training sessions across the country.

A handful of other self-driving companies, such as Kodiak Robotics, say they have employees in similar liaison roles.

There’s an urgent need for such interaction between police officers, firefighters, tech companies and government and city officials, according to an August 2021 report from the Governors Highway Safety Association. The report indicated first responders and crash investigators need training to better understand ever-evolving vehicle automation.

While walking first responders through emergency response guides and answering questions is the nuts-and-bolts portion of his efforts, Patrick said his main job is forging connections and having conversations long before something goes wrong.

“Part of my role is that they can pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey Rob, we were wondering why a car did this or that,’ and then I look into it,” he said.

In November, he received such a call from Riddle-Bigler. A Waymo robotaxi had come across a crash scene in Phoenix. A firetruck blocked a portion of the road and the robotaxi navigated around it.

“It should have turned around,” Riddle-Bigler said.

She described the incident as more happenstance than something that raised concerns. But firefighters wanted to understand why the vehicle maneuvered around them. For Riddle-Bigler, it underscored the fledgling nature of interactions between AVs and first responders.

“We think we have this under wraps, but all it took was one incident to realize that we don’t know what we don’t know,” she said. “It shows to me how valuable this relationship is, and the importance of those guys reaching out.”

In his training sessions, Patrick starts by delineating between driver-assistance and autonomous driving systems. He reminds his audience there are no self-driving vehicles on sale to the general public — a misconception the Governors Highway Safety Association report flagged as common among law enforcement officers.

Patrick provides information on sensors, which is familiar for police officers accustomed to using radar for monitoring vehicle speed and lidar for reconstructing crime scenes. He then walks first responders through emergency response guides prepared for both the company’s Chrysler Pacifica minivans and Jaguar I-PACE electric vehicles.

In some respects, human-driven vehicle models can pose the same dangers. Rescuers must be aware of risks related to electric shock and stranded energy, and know areas where they should and should not cut to extract passengers following a crash. Waymo’s autonomous I-PACE vehicles contain an additional wrinkle. Hoses that bring air and cleaning fluid to the sensor array on the roof are housed in the C-pillar.

“It’s not hazardous to them,” Patrick said. “But if they have to do a roof removal, they have to be aware that it exists so they’re not surprised by it.”

Finding and accessing such information at a moment’s notice is an important goal. Emergency response guides for both the Pacifica and I-PACE are uploaded onto iPads that many Phoenix police officers and firefighters carry in their vehicles.

Should first responders have additional questions, Waymo has a dedicated 877 number for them to call. They can also press a display button inside the vehicle to be linked to a remote services operator, or use the dedicated phone line between the company’s operations center and the Phoenix fire and police departments, Patrick said.

Responding within a matter of minutes, the most important thing is that “we want to know what we can and can’t do, what can hurt us, and how to protect the people in the vehicle,” Riddle-Bigler said.

One of the most common questions first responders ask involves ensuring a vehicle is stopped or in park following a crash. Typically, a passenger cannot grab the steering wheel and wrest control of the vehicle — a feature that provides security in the company’s everyday operations.

But Waymo’s remote services team can enable such control following a crash or when law enforcement requests it on the dedicated phone line.

Another common question involves vehicle behavior at a traffic stop.

In April, an AV operated by GM-backed Cruise drove away from a police officer in San Francisco before a traffic stop could be completed. This incident comes up frequently in Bay Area training classes. A Waymo vehicle would have responded differently, Patrick said.

“If they had stopped our vehicle, the windows would have been rolled down and the rider-services people would have been on the speaker saying, ‘Hi officer, how can I help you?’,” he said.

The incident led to renewed questions about AV interactions with police officers, while also accentuating larger tensions between AV companies operating in the city and public officials, who say they have little control over what happens on their streets.

Jeffrey Tumlin, director of transportation at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, often hears about problems involving AVs, either from 911 operators or on social media. Waymo is an exception in proactive communication when problems arise, he said.

“We hear from Waymo,” Tumlin said. “We don’t always hear from other companies we work with.”

Sometimes communication is a two-way street. In November, an AV was vandalized in the city. San Francisco police officers called the Waymo dispatch center to alert them. It turned out it was not a Waymo vehicle. For Patrick, it didn’t matter.

“They had their training, they called the Waymo number,” he said. “For a guy that does what I do, that made me feel awesome.”

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