It Turns Out Traffic Cones Can Stop Some Self-Driving Cars

Protesters have discovered a simple way to make their point

Waymo car in motion
A Waymo self-driving car in motion.
AFP via Getty Images

Earlier this month, San Francisco gave the go-ahead to robotaxis operated by Waymo and Cruise to operate around the clock. San Francisco is the latest city to do so, and it might have some company soon — The Verge reported that Austin, Texas would be the next city where traveling by cab might involve being driven by software. While the companies behind self-driving vehicles (including Waymo’s parent company Alphabet) are enthusiastic about the technology, not everyone shares that feeling — and some of them may have figured out a bit limitation on robotaxi tech.

As NPR’s Dara Kerr reports, protesters in San Francisco from the group Safe Street Rebel have come up with a way to quickly keep a self-driving car from going anywhere: putting an orange traffic cone on its hood. As anonymous members of the organization told Kerr, they’re frustrated that the city where they live is being used as a testing ground for the technology.

Given that reports of self-driving cars causing traffic jams and getting stuck in concrete circulated after San Francisco gave the okay for round-the-clock robotaxi operations, it isn’t hard to see where the activists are coming from. It’s worth pointing out, too, that Cruise recently agreed to halve its total number of self-driving cars in San Francisco after one of its vehicles was involved in an accident.

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There is something surreal about the idea of a high-tech, cutting-edge autonomous vehicle being taken out of service with something that can be purchased for under $20. Speaking more broadly, the conflict over self-driving vehicles also gets at a larger question: who benefits most from this technology? It isn’t hard to understand why some city residents would be skeptical of their public spaces turned into testing grounds for private companies.

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