(Bloomberg) -- Hundreds of pages of emails between the driverless car company Cruise and the San Francisco Police Department show how contentious — and at times, collaborative — their relationship has been since the autonomous vehicle firm offered its robotaxi service to the public last year.

SFPD officials voiced some complaints. Cruise vehicles had driven through active crime scenes, disregarding caution tape, and had disrupted a motorcade escorting First Lady Jill Biden through town. Cruise, meanwhile, lamented that its cars were sometimes stopped by “curious cops” without any legitimate reason for doing so.

In other instances, police and Cruise, owned by General Motors Co. and based in San Francisco, worked in concert. After a meeting in June, Cruise wrote to thank the police for their “candor and advice” and invited SFPD officers to visit their corporate offices. The police, meanwhile, later asked the company to share footage from the cars’ cameras to help solve a crime.

The correspondence between the SFPD and Cruise took place over the course of about 18 months, from early 2022 through this summer. The trove of emails, unearthed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and shared exclusively with Bloomberg News, offers a rare glimpse into the interaction between a company at the cutting edge of transportation technology and the law enforcement tasked with making sure its cars operate safely.

It also provides a window into the company’s operations at a pivotal time. Before it was suspended by the state of California in October, Cruise had  400 cars operating in San Francisco and a further 200 in Austin, Houston and Phoenix.

A spokesperson for the SFPD didn’t reply to a request for comment on the department’s relationship with Cruise. A spokesperson for Cruise’s main rival, Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo, said the company has “a very positive working relationship with the SFPD and have met with them regularly over the years through our First Responder Outreach Team.”

Cruise launched its driverless taxi service in San Francisco in February 2022 and was cleared for  commercial operations in August. Just two months later, its license was suspended after the California Department of Motor Vehicles accused the company of withholding crucial video of a serious accident involving a pedestrian. Shortly thereafter, Cruise grounded its self-driving fleet nationwide. 

As Cruise works to restore credibility with the state and satisfy demands by the federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the rapport that Cruise developed with the SFPD will be instrumental in earning the public trust. In an effort to rehabilitate its reputation, Cruise will need to work hand in glove with the department that could now take on even more influence and authority. 

“Public agencies and especially the police department shape public opinion,” said Bryant Walker Smith, an associate professor of law at the University of South Carolina who researches automation and connectivity. “There are just lots of ways that the perspective of an agency that is as important as the police department can shape the view of your operations within city government, within other governments, within media, and therefore among the public.”While Cruise has invested more than $1 billion in its driverless car rollout, the correspondence makes plain how much time and energy it’s also invested in building a relationship with SFPD. The company meets regularly with city agencies to discuss incidents and concerns as well as answer questions and gather feedback.  In the emails reviewed by Bloomberg, Cruise invited officers to learn about the vehicles’ inner workings and shared regular updates about philanthropic efforts. In February, when Cruise couldn’t help with a criminal investigation, apparently because its vehicle had been mistaken for a competitor’s, an employee seemed disappointed.

“I'm sorry that it turned out it was not one of our cars,” Lawrence Lagarejos, a regional investigations manager for Cruise and a retired law enforcement officer, wrote in an email to SFPD. “If I can be of service in the future, please do not hesitate to contact me.”

Self-driving cars are controversial. They’re touted by some as eventually being safer than human drivers but still have lots of learning to do,  as was made clear after Cruise’s high-profile accidents, one involving a crash with a fire truck and another seriously injuring a pedestrian after dragging her 20 feet. According to the emails, the SFPD had earlier raised concerns of its own, largely about the vehicles' failure to observe traffic norms. After witnessing three instances in which a Cruise car impeded the path of emergency vehicles, officer Ari Zuckerman wrote the company in November 2022 to ask whether it offered a “manual override” that emergency services could use to move the vehicles. After conversations with law enforcement officials, Cruise worked out a solution in July to manually move the cars in an emergency situation.

Autonomous vehicles are also roving data collection machines, with cameras and sensors that can capture footage of crimes in progress or regular civilians going about their lives. And for that reason, they have alarmed privacy advocates, too. 

The restrictions placed on Cruise by California regulators underscore how important it is for the public to better understand the details of the firms’ operations before self-driving cars are more commonplace, said Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst at EFF.

“Companies that operate technology that can have life or death consequences, and companies that collect the sheer amount of data a self-driving car company needs to, should be transparent across the board,” Guariglia said.

California has said it won’t reinstate Cruise’s suspended permits until the company has “taken steps” to fulfill DMV requirements and the company has said it will try to get them up and running again. “During this time we plan to seek input from our government and agency partners and other key stakeholders to understand how we can be better partners," Cruise said in a blog post.“My hope is that Cruise can get things in order in order to be back on streets of San Francisco, but really they are going to need to build the trust of people here in the city,” said Mayor London Breed, in an interview with Bloomberg TV.

The abrupt pause in operations has implications for local police in other cities too, where they have come to rely on data collected by the cars to help in investigations. Officers in San Francisco and the Phoenix area have submitted search warrants to Cruise and Waymo for video footage captured by their vehicles near crime scenes, Bloomberg has reported. In June and August, the SFPD submitted search warrants to Cruise for help solving a sexual assault and a fatal collision, plus another to Waymo in July for potential footage of a burglary.  On one previously unreported instance in July, SFPD wrote to Cruise seeking video after one of its cars was spotted driving past the Indian consulate near the time of a suspected case of arson.

“I was hoping to get the footage from that vehicle in order to capture a picture of the suspects or a license plate,” Sergeant Dermot Dorgan wrote to Cruise on July 7. Bloomberg couldn’t determine whether Cruise provided any insight.

In addition to video, Cruise disclosed in its communications with SFPD that it records audio. That exceeds the level of surveillance that everyday people expect to encounter when they leave their homes, EFF’s Guariglia said. “Walking in public, one has an expectation that you will eventually walk past some kind of a camera,” he said. “What you don’t expect is to have your conversation recorded from a parked or moving vehicle.”

A Cruise spokeswoman said the company records audio primarily to detect sirens. Cruise only responds to police requests for “what is needed,” she said, and doesn’t provide video in response to a broad request. The cars have a sign on them that discloses that video and audio are being recorded.  As Cruise works to gain the public trust, it will be important to develop a system of reporting issues that works for the police, said the University of South Carolina’s Walker Smith, rather than expecting the force to change practices and operations to conform to its technology.“That is a fundamental difference that undergirds a lot of the debate around automated driving,” he said. “Should the tech adapt to the world or should the world have to adapt to the tech? Part of this earning trust is adapting to the world as it is.” 

--With assistance from Dana Hull.

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