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Protesters, armed with traffic cones, are immobilizing driverless cars


Driverless cars now roam San Francisco any time of day or night, picking up passengers like taxis. But it's been a bumpy road the last few weeks. One issue - street activists who have figured out how to immobilize the robotaxis in a low-tech way. Here's NPR tech correspondent Dara Kerr.

DARA KERR, BYLINE: It's dark out by the time members of Safe Street Rebel meet up with their e-bikes. They're wearing face masks and refuse to reveal their identities. That's because it's unclear whether disabling driverless cars is legal.



UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Got to find one over there. Not in the crosswalk. Not in the crosswalk.


KERR: One of the group's organizers explains the point of all of this.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We thought putting cones on these was a funny image that could captivate people. And one of these self-driving cars worth billions of dollars of venture capital investment money and R&D just being disabled by a common traffic cone.

KERR: The anonymous group uses street theater shenanigans to fight against cars and promote public transportation. Its newest target has been the hundreds of driverless vehicles run by the companies Cruise and Waymo. The group figured out that if they put an orange traffic cone directly on the hood of these robotaxis, it confuses the car's sensors and shuts it down. They say they don't like the city being used as a guinea pig for this new technology.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I think a lot of us are uncomfortable with just the fact that we were beta testers - unwilling beta testers.

KERR: Safe Street Rebel has ground rules. They don't cone on bus routes, and they won't go after a vehicle carrying a passenger. But otherwise, any busy street is fair game. As they wait on a corner, an autonomous vehicle pulls up. They run into the intersection, cones in hand, only to see people inside. These passengers know exactly what's going on.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: No one's in it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: No one's in it?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Oh, someone is.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: No (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, you're good.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: What are you doing (laughter)?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: No, you're good. Have a good night.

KERR: Coning driverless cars has become a viral sensation in San Francisco.


UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR #1: Protesters in San Francisco are trying to stop self-driving cars from expanding...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: They've been roaming the streets of San Francisco.

UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR #2: Using traffic cones to prove that truly autonomous driving is not only not ready for prime time but something too easy to tamper with.

KERR: A Cruise spokesperson told NPR that intentionally obstructing the driverless cars, quote, "risks creating traffic congestion." It's unclear why the cones disable their vehicles, and neither Cruise nor Waymo responded to questions on how this is happening.

MARGARET O'MARA: The traffic cone protest is an example of how things in the real world can really confound machines, even ones as sophisticated and finely tuned as this.

KERR: Margaret O'Mara is a history professor who studies the tech industry at the University of Washington.

O'MARA: All new technologies are greeted with a combination of fascination and fear. It's like, wow, this is so cool, and oh, my gosh, the robot overlords are coming. And nothing really encapsulates that better than an autonomous vehicle.

KERR: Earlier this month, California decided to allow Cruise and Waymo to expand their programs and provide robotaxi service 24/7. Since then, a driverless car steered into a construction site and sunk into wet cement. Nearly a dozen others got confused after a concert and became paralyzed, blocking the streets. And a Cruise vehicle carrying a passenger collided with a fire truck.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We don't really need traffic cones to show how vulnerable they are.

KERR: The Safe Street Rebel organizer says the group isn't anti-technology. Many of them say they're actually tech workers. At a busy intersection, a couple activists see their next robot victim turning a corner, a Waymo. No one is inside. They run out and put the cone on the hood.



UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Let's get out of here.

KERR: The car's side lights burst on and begin to flash. And then the vehicle sits there, immobile, in the middle of the street.

Dara Kerr, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Dara Kerr
Dara Kerr is a tech reporter for NPR. She examines the choices tech companies make and the influence they wield over our lives and society.