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Driverless car companies agree to talk safety with Mayor Farrell after fatal crash

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Mayor Mark Farrell will meet with technology companies to discuss driverless cars and street safety. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Two days after a self-driving Uber struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Ariz., technology companies producing driverless cars will meet with San Francisco officials to talk street safety.

Uber, Lyft, Google’s Waymo, Zoox, GM Cruise, Phantom Auto and NVIDIA will meet with Mayor Mark Farrell and city safety officials for a closed-door round-table discussion on best practices today at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium.

Two weeks ago, Farrell wrote to the 50 companies pioneering autonomous vehicle technology in California to invite them to a safety briefing, so San Francisco first responders can learn firsthand how to handle the new technology.

Farrell requested the briefing before the death of 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg in Tempe. He told the San Francisco Examiner on Wednesday the effort “is purely about San Francisco and making sure these companies know how serious we are about the public safety of our residents.”

When asked if he discussed the fatal collision, Farrell said, “I haven’t spoken about any specific incidents. … We have to make sure the safety comes first.”

The City has no regulatory control over self-driving vehicles, which are governed by the California Department of Motor Vehicles and California Public Utilities Commission. DMV regulations for deploying self-driving vehicles without drivers behind the wheel were approved last month, and the vehicles could roll down California streets as early as April 2.

The daylong event will feature safety demonstrations with autonomous vehicles from manufacturers Zoox and GM Cruise, according to the Mayor’s Office. This will give first responders a chance to see self-driving vehicles up close and ask questions about enforcement. The first responders include the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, the San Francisco Police Department, the San Francisco Fire Department, the San Francisco’s Sheriff’s Office and the California Highway Patrol.

“My big concern is, in an emergency, how are we going to react to the vehicle?” asked SFPD Cmdr. Theresa Ewins, who oversees the municipal transportation division.

Police Chief Bill Scott and Ewins’ officer trainers will be on hand to ask self-driving car companies every safety-related question on their minds.

“This is an unknown for everyone, so it’s important we begin a dialogue,” Ewins said.

That’s exactly what Phantom Auto co-founder Elliot Katz hopes to do. Phantom Auto provides “remote operators” who monitor as many as four self-driving cars from offices in Mountain View.

The drivers sit at video game-style steering wheels, flanked by banks of computer monitors, and can take over a self-driving car when its artificial intelligence becomes confused about road rules. Those drivers are “present” in an always-running video and audio feed, and are available to interact with first responders like police, Katz said.

Katz said Phantom Auto is working one-on-one with cities to determine safety measures for self-driving cars, but San Francisco is the first to convene a meeting like this.

“The key takeaway for me, and for Phantom Auto, is to know what are the issues in first responders minds. What are the pain points? What do they want to understand?” he said.

That information exchange between government and autonomous vehicle companies can serve another purpose, Katz said, by providing public assurance.

“People aren’t accepting that they should completely trust a machine” behind the wheel, Katz said. “We want everyone to know this deployment will be done in an optimally safe manner.”

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