Cone Vigilantes v. Driverless Cars

11/01/2023
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    A disabled self-driving car sits at an intersection. (Safe Street Rebel)
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    A line of three self-driving cars are paralyzed by cones on their hoods. (Safe Street Rebel)
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    The Safe Street Rebel group’s tactics are low-tech but effective. (Safe Street Rebel)
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    A passenger rides in the back of a Cruise driverless taxi in San Francisco’s Mission District. (AP/Terry Chea)
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    A Waymo driverless taxi operates on the street during a test ride in San Francisco, California. (AP/Terry Chea)
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    Reporter Michael Liedtke and Waymo communications manager Julia Ilina try to determine why a Waymo driverless taxi won’t move. The car functions again after they close the back door, which was ajar. (AP/Terry Chea)
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San Francisco is being overrun. But the menace isn’t what you think. Activists are paralyzing cars. Are people simply making a statement—or acting as vigilantes?

San Francisco has become a testing ground for driverless cars. Autonomous car companies started operating there in 2018. Testing began with humans on board in case of trouble. But soon, some cars began running sans backup operators.

Over the summer, a California commission voted to allow driverless cars—hundreds of them—to provide taxi rides 24/7 in the City by the Bay. San Franciscans objected.

Some companies claim driverless cars are safer than those with human handlers. After all, robocars come equipped with sensors, cameras, and high-tech capabilities. Nighttime? No problem. Changing lanes? Easy. Parallel parking? Like a boss. Recognizing an emergency vehicle from a distance? Um, maybe not.

Driverless cars keep wreaking havoc. Since San Fran’s decision, one vehicle drove into wet concrete. Another—with a passenger inside—crashed into a fire truck. Several got confused and blocked streets after a concert. They’ve also run red lights, rear-ended buses, blocked crosswalks, and hit dogs, people, and more.

San Francisco’s Safe Street Rebel group doesn’t like their city being a test site. SSR says robocars slow everyday traffic and block emergency vehicles. The group also claims in a video that car companies partner “with police to report everyone all the time without anyone’s consent.”

To protest, SSR activists found a simple way to paralyze driverless cars: traffic cones. Placed on a hood, one cone disables a vehicle, except for flashing lights, until removed—by a human.

Professor Margaret O’Mara studies the tech industry. She calls San Francisco’s traffic cone protests “a reminder that in this very high-tech world, the most low-tech things can literally put a wrench in the machine.”

One anonymous activist told NPR’s Dara Kerr, “We thought putting cones on these was a funny image that could captivate people.” It did. Social media quickly buzzed with images of coned cars frozen in the streets.

Kerr says SSR has rules: “They don’t cone on bus routes, and they won’t go after a vehicle carrying a passenger. Otherwise, any busy street is fair game.”

Masked SSR crusaders want to stay anonymous—mostly because immobilizing driverless cars may not be legal. After all, SSR encourages obtaining cones (stealing?), placing them on driverless vehicles (trespassing?), and repeating. The prank seems rife with potential pitfalls—and a case of two wrongs not making a right.

Do not say, “I will repay evil”; wait for the Lord, and He will deliver you. — Proverbs 20:22

Why? Peaceful protests can be appropriate and legal expressions that produce positive change, but when they trample on others’ rights or property, they go too far.

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