Robotaxi haters in San Francisco disable the AVs with traffic cones

Image credit: Roberto Baldwin

A decentralized group of safe streets activists in San Francisco realized they can disable Cruise and Waymo robot axes by placing a traffic cone on a vehicle’s hood, and they’re encouraging others to do the same.

“Week of Cone,” as the group calls the now-viral joke on Twitter and TikTok, is a form of protest against the proliferation of robotaxi services in the city, and it appears to be catching on with residents sick of the vehicles failing and blocking the traffic. The protest comes ahead of a hearing that is likely to see Waymo and Cruise expand their robotaxi services in San Francisco.

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) is set to approve the expansion of both Cruise’s and Waymo’s autonomous vehicle passenger services in San Francisco on July 13. The agency does not authorize companies to use their AVs on public roads – the ministry does. of the domain of motor vehicles. But it gives companies the power to charge passengers a price for that service, which is a key ingredient to scaling robotics and autonomous delivery operations sustainably.

In May, the CPUC released draft resolutions approving the expansion, despite growing opposition from city agencies and residents. Opponents called out the string of AVs that have stymied traffic, public transit and emergency services, and called on the CPUC to tread carefully, set up workshops, collect more data, ban the deployment of robotic axes downtown and during rush hour, and limit the expansion of fleet sizes .

Screenshot from @safestreetrebel’s TikTok video showing how to disable an AV with a traffic cone. Image credit: @safestreetrebel / Screenshot

Other opponents such as the San Francisco Taxi Workers Alliance and the Alliance for Independent Workers have objected to the proliferation of robot taxis, which they say will eliminate the need for taxi and ride-hailing drivers.

Safe Street Rebel’s cone campaign is an effort to raise awareness and invite more outraged San Franciscans to submit public comments to the CPUC before next week’s hearing.

“These companies promise their cars will reduce traffic and collisions, but instead they block buses, emergency vehicles and everyday traffic,” a video says posted on social media. “They even euthanized a person and a dog. And they work with the police to record everyone all the time without anyone’s consent. And most importantly, they require streets designed for cars, not people or transit. They exist only for profit-driven car companies to remain dominant and make it harder for transit to stay afloat.”

Although the above statement is a bit hyperbolic, there are nuggets of truth. Cruise and Waymo vehicles have actually stopped in the middle of roads, blocking emergency vehicles, public transit and general traffic. Recently, a Waymo AV hit and killed a dog, but it seems the accident was unavoidable. In 2018, a self-driving Uber vehicle was involved in an accident that killed a pedestrian in Arizona, but so far no deaths have occurred as a result of AVs in San Francisco. And yes, police have tapped Cruise and Waymo for recordings to help solve a handful of crimes, but there’s no evidence that the companies are working with law enforcement to record everyone all the time.

Nonetheless, the group addresses a common concern about unleashing autonomous vehicles on public roads — the lack of input from ordinary people who have to deal with the vehicles on the ground. Congressional efforts to regulate self-driving cars have stalled for years, so most regulation comes from state departments of transportation and departments of motor vehicles.

“I see some tech bros wringing their hands in horror: ‘Won’t someone think about the AVs?'” tweeted David Zipper, a visiting fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government, in response to the cone challenge. “Couldn’t disagree more. California regulators are forcing San Franciscans to become guinea pigs for ongoing AV technology. Active protest is a reasonable response.”

Or to put it another way:

“Absolutely not. We do not consent to this,” said Safe Street Rebel.

The group is inviting others to follow its lead and disable the vehicles by “carefully placing” cones on a driverless – i.e. empty – car hood. Some people are apparently submit contributions, but it is unclear how many people have sent photos to Safe Street Rebel. The group did not respond to TechCrunch’s request for comment.

Waymo called the viral hack a form of vandalism.

“Not only is this understanding of how AVs work wrong, but this is vandalism and encourages unsafe and disrespectful behavior on our roads,” the company said in a statement. “We will notify the police of any unwanted or unsafe interference with our vehicles on public roads.”

Again with the hyperbole. The definition of vandalism is to intentionally damage someone’s property – think of slashed tires or broken windows. Waymo probably won’t have any luck pressing vandalism charges against someone who puts a cone on the hood of their vehicles.

Cruise told TechCrunch that it has a strong safety record and that the autonomous driver, compared to a human driver, had 73% fewer collisions with a significant risk of injury.

“Cruise’s fleet provides free rides to late-night service workers without more reliable transportation options, has delivered over 2 million meals to food-insecure San Franciscans, and recycles food waste from local businesses,” Cruise said in a statement. “Deliberately obstructing vehicles in the path of this effort and risks creating traffic jams for local residents.”

Despite the guerilla protests, the cone trick is unlikely to have any effect on the CPUC’s decision. There is enough support from other stakeholders—including elected officials, accessibility advocates, technology industry groups, and business and economic development organizations—that the CPUC can brush dissent under the rug. And according to the upcoming hearing’s agenda, the agency appears poised to approve the program authorization.

“Cruise’s proposed service is not expected to result in significant safety risks,” an agenda item said. The same sentiment is repeated for Waymo.

This article has been updated with a statement from Cruise.

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