A viral video this week made the curious claim that self-driving robotaxis on SF streets can be brought to a halt with the placement of an orange cone on the vehicle’s hood. Cruise and Waymo have both responded that the jokers doing this need to knock it off.
This week, a video posted on TikTok made what sounded like a completely implausible claim: That one could disable a self-driving Cruise or Waymo taxicab simply by placing an orange traffic cone on the vehicle’s hood. But millions of viral video views later, both Waymo and Cruise have responded in extremely perturbed-sounding terms, which almost indicates… maybe this stunt does actually work?
A group of San Franciscans realized that they can disable Waymo and Cruise robotaxis by placing a traffic cone on the vehicle's hood.— David Zipper (@DavidZipper) July 6, 2023
They're now encouraging others to do it: "Hell no, we do not consent to this." pic.twitter.com/ZrYhy4OATy
The above video was originally posted to the TikTok account safestreetrebel, but has since been deleted from that platform (safestreetrebel claims TikTok deleted it). But it was cross-posted to Twitter on July 5, and a copy of the video posted by transportation author and scholar David Zipper racked up more than three million views in the last two days.
We were initially skeptical of this orange cone claim. The video is a supercut of two- or three-second clips, so does not seem to prove the cone-on-the-hood trick actually works. Moreover, the video’s robot narrator uses the bizarre phraseology the that robotaxis have “even un-alived a person and a dog,” which does not lend credibility.
Week of Cone - Night One was a hit! Keep sending in your coning submissions 🦄 pic.twitter.com/c4KZLbFvhy— ConeSF – Week of Cone (@SafeStreetRebel) July 6, 2023
But both Waymo and Cruise's spokespeople have responded. And as Forbes points out, both companies very pointedly avoided confirming or denying whether an orange cone on the hood could halt their autonomous vehicles.
The Examiner got a detailed statement out of Google-owned Waymo. "Not only is this understanding of how AVs (autonomous vehicles) operate incorrect, but this is vandalism and encourages unsafe and disrespectful behavior on our roadways,” Waymo spokesperson Katherine Barna told that paper. “We will notify law enforcement of any unwanted or unsafe interference of our vehicles on public roadways."
Though as TechCrunch notes, the vandalism charge may be something of a stretch. “The definition of vandalism is to intentionally damage someone’s property — think slashed tires or broken windows,” that site points out. “Waymo probably won’t have any luck sticking a vandalism charge on someone who puts a cone on the hood of its vehicles.”
There’s also no accountability when they block buses or first responders, and unlike human drivers can’t get ticketed for moving violations. And they refuse to share data with the public about incidents- forcing the city to scrape this dumb website to get an estimate. https://t.co/w0A4R1TYTR— ConeSF – Week of Cone (@SafeStreetRebel) July 5, 2023
Cruise has similarly provided an exact same statement to multiple media publications, playing up that these for-profit robotaxis are doing the Lord’s work or something. “Cruise’s fleet provides free rides to late-night service workers without more reliable transportation options, has delivered over two million meals to food insecure San Franciscans, and recovers food waste from local businesses,” Cruise said in their statement to TechCrunch. “Intentionally obstructing vehicles gets in the way of those efforts and risks creating traffic congestion for local residents.”
So… is that admitting that the orange cone trick does obstruct these vehicles?
There are obviously ethical contradictions with robotaxi opponents who say they’re upset that the vehicles sometimes stop and block traffic, but then intentionally force the vehicles to stop and block traffic. And you shouldn’t be stealing traffic cones! They’re where they are for a reason!
But if these self-driving cars made it this far without their designers and manufacturers realizing they have this easily exploitable Achilles heel, then yes, that absolutely should be discussed publicly. And if the robotaxis get wider adoption, there will be different and more serious threat vectors than just some late-night pranksters. So maybe the late-night pranksters are playing a crucial role in the vehicles' testing, whether or not Cruise and Waymo would admit that.
In San Francisco, robotaxis have been blocking streets, slowing emergency response, and delaying transit.— David Zipper (@DavidZipper) December 8, 2022
Now AV companies are expanding to new cities, where local officials are powerless to manage them. This could get ugly.
Me, in @Slate. 🧵https://t.co/4ZklSXjea1
Much of the “orange cone liberation front” activity seeks to highlight a Thursday, July 13 California Public Utilities Commission meeting where Cruise and Waymo will seek to expand the hours and areas where their driverless cars can operate in the city. And the orange cone antics are unlikely to influence the commission’s decision. But what might might influence the commission’s decision more are the countless incidents of the cars idling in traffic, first responders saying the cars block their rescue efforts, and reports of the cars stopping in flocks on SF streets.
Image: @SafeStreetRebel via Twitter