As driverless cars start to take over our deliveries, freight lines, and every other behind-the-wheel human role, it was only a matter of time before they started having awkward run-ins with cops, too.
We got a glimpse of what that might look like in a new clip taken earlier this month, showing a team of San Fransisco cops tried pulling over a taxi for driving around at night with its headlights out—only to find there was nobody inside. Then car took part in the time-honored American tradition of the police chase.
The clip—which was taken by a bystander watching the scene unfold—shows a cop standing over a driverless taxi owned by Cruise, a subsidiary of General Motors which was approved to test-launch its driverless taxis down the streets of San Fransisco late last year. Stipulations in Cruise’s “driverless deployment permit” mean that the company can only operate the cars in a driverless capacity between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., which is why the car was seen skulking around at night. But why the car chose to see the sights without its lights on is unclear.
The clip starts with one of the cops approaching the robo-taxi, as someone off-camera shouts that there “ain’t nobody in it.” The cop does a quick check to confirm, and start walking back to their own police vehicle. Then the taxi makes a literal run for it, speeding off to the other side of the junction before coming to a stop at the curb.
“Are you serious? How does that happen?” another bystander can be heard shouting as the cops race up behind the taxi (again). The second time around, both cops came out, encircled the taxi in question and seemingly took down its identifying info while waiting for a third officer to arrive at the scene.
It’s a video that raises questions about driverless cars that were once only the provenance of an Isaac Asimov story. Why did the car suddenly try speeding off? Did it know that cops were trying to pull it over? Did it feel guilty? Can cars register guilt? Was the car just camera shy, and trying to escape from the gawking pedestrians?
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Cruise, for its part, tweeted out a response to the footage over the weekend, saying that its car “yielded to the police vehicle, then pulled over to the nearest safe location for the traffic stop, as intended.” The company did not address why the car sped away from the police.
“An officer contacted Cruise personnel and no citation was issued,” Cruise went on. “We work closely with the SFPD on how to interact with our vehicles, including a dedicated phone number for them to call in situations like this.”
While this certainly isn’t the first time that a self-driving vehicle has been pulled over for abnormal behavior, this does seem to be the first time that one’s been pulled over without any driver or passenger inside. And when something like that happens, the only thing we, as passersby, can really do is hope that the company remembers to keep its lights on next time.
We’ve reached out to the San Francisco Police Department for comment on the car, and will update here when we hear back.