Cops have lots to learn when it comes to autonomous-car emergencies

California recently started allowing autonomous-car companies to apply for permits that will enable them to test their vehicles without a safety driver. In other words, the car could contain regular folks taking a driverless taxi ride as part of a trial, or even be completely empty as it travels between locations.

While California currently has more than 50 companies testing their driverless technology on its public roads, all of them have safety drivers behind the wheel in case something goes wrong during a drive. Waymo is one of only two companies that have so far applied to test fully driverless cars since the option became available last month.

As part of the application process for these fully driverless vehicles, California’s Department of Motor Vehicles stipulated that companies must submit a “law enforcement interaction plan” explaining in detail how it intends to work with law enforcement and first responders in the event of an incident involving one of its driverless vehicles.

IEEE has obtained a copy of Waymo’s “emergency response supplement,” a 41-page document that presents something of a learning curve for cops and others who are called to an incident involving one of its vehicles.

Written specifically for Waymo’s autonomous Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan, of which it has more than 50 on California’s roads, the booklet explains how to identify a vehicle as one of its own, how to interpret lights on the dash, and how to disable self-driving mode in its minivans that have an emergency stop button, and how to disable it if it has no such button. And that’s just for starters.

If you want to access the trunk, you’ll need to “disable self-driving mode (step 5 or 6) first and then pull the exterior handle or press the power liftgate button on the front row overhead console.”

The booklet also offers detailed “wet location considerations” that explain how particular circumstances could create byproducts that are “explosive or corrosive and could have adverse effects on human health.”

It also explains “fire-fighting considerations,” “electrical considerations,” and “extrication considerations” where occupants need to be removed from a crashed vehicle.

There’s even a note for anyone that arranges for one of its vehicles to be towed, saying: “Please use caution to avoid damaging sensors,” which it uses to navigate the streets.

If law enforcement and first responders can’t find the answers they’re looking for in the booklet, or if referring to the documents takes up too much precious time, they can call a toll-free hotline to speak with one of Waymo’s professionally trained specialists.

With each additional autonomous-car company required to submit similar documents with their own specific plans for dealing with incidents, law enforcement and first responders will clearly need to be well organized in order to keep track of all the different procedures. Over time, as the technology becomes more common and training improves, response procedures should become second nature to many attending a traffic incident involving driverless vehicles.

Of course, a major ambition of those building driverless-car technology is the eradication of all incidents and accidents. But with the technology still in a relatively early stage of development, accidents are continuing to happen, while incidents caused by human-driven cars that involve autonomous vehicles are likely to occur for many years to come.

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