Autonomous vehicles have been a hot topic since they were first introduced. Now, as the technology is pushed further into the real world, opinions are split. San Francisco has become a veritable battleground for robotaxis as two of the largest companies in the space, Cruise and Waymo, are now permitted to operate on city streets around the clock.
While city officials and some residents see the self-driving cabs as a positive, others are wary. Safety concerns and fears that the technology is not fully developed have led some residents to disable the driverless cars in an act called coning.
Robotaxis have been rolling down San Francisco streets since June of last year. However, Cruise and Waymo won a major victory last month when the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) voted to allow 24-hour operation. Previously, the two companies were only allowed to operate their autonomous taxis at night—when fewer pedestrians and other drivers are out.
In the weeks since, the city has been divided with vastly differing opinions about the technology. Many residents believe the robotaxis, which operate fully autonomously, are a danger. Firsthand accounts of traffic jams and cars parked in front of firehouses serve to reinforce those fears. Indeed, just eight days after officials voted to expand robotaxi use, a Cruise vehicle collided with a fire engine. Others report the autonomous vehicles simply stopping in traffic when their sensors are unsure how to proceed in a given situation.
On the other side, the robotaxis operators and some residents claim they’re safer than human-driven vehicles. An orthopedic surgeon who lives and cycles in San Francisco told the BBC, “I see how these cars behave, and I trust them much more than angry drivers or distracted drivers.”
Both Waymo and Cruise are adamant their self-driving taxis are safe. The latter claims it has completed three million miles of driverless testing with a “strong” safety record and no fatal or life-threatening injuries. Waymo claims over two million driverless miles and no accidents involving pedestrians or cyclists. It says any collision one of its vehicles has been involved in is the result of other drivers breaking the rules of the road.
Some residents who oppose autonomous cars have taken a more drastic approach than voicing their opinions. A group known as Safe Street Rebel sprung up this summer and aims to put an end to robotaxis. Members have been shown “coning” autonomous vehicles, or placing traffic cones on the car’s hood to block its sensors, in viral TikTok videos.
When the car’s sensors are obscured, it comes to a halt and remains immobilized until the object is removed. As a result, a simple traffic cone can shut down an autonomous vehicle for hours until someone removes it. This is a major concern for operators like Waymo and Cruise but hasn’t drawn harsh reprimands from local government officials or law enforcement.
In an interview with BBC, an anonymous member of Safe Street Rebel said, “We’re definitely not vigilantes. We’re just the community self-organizing to make ourselves heard.”
Indeed, such outcry over technological advancement won’t be isolated to San Francisco in the coming years. Leaps in artificial intelligence (AI) technology have put many on edge. Safe Street Rebel members say coning is one of the first forms of physical protest against AI. They expect similar actions to become more common in the days ahead.
For San Francisco, this issue is larger than robotaxis. In essence, driverless cars represent a tipping point in how humans interact with technology—especially AI. If the city so often at the forefront of new technology isn’t ready to accept them, perhaps this is a sign more discussion is needed before AI-powered tools are readily integrated into daily life.