This being Black History Month apologies in advance for referencing the Boston Tea Party, a watershed moment in American history where race wasn’t a factor. As I’m not certain whether the event is still part of the curriculum of U.S. high schools, for the benefit of millennials I won’t assume widespread knowledge of what I’m referring to and will provide some background and context about the incident.

The Boston Tea Party, which occurred on December 16, 1773, wasn’t a traditional party with singing and dancing while enjoying fair trade and organic teas. Rather, it was a protest by defiant colonial patriots in Massachusetts who were angered by a tax on tea and the perceived monopoly of the England-based East India Company. Dressed as Mohawk Indians (cultural appropriation wasn’t an issue in those days), some 60 persons who identified as men boarded ships in Boston’s Griffin’s Wharf and dumped entire cargos of tea chests.

“No taxation without representation,” was the rallying cry of the patriots who were miffed about being forced to pay taxes to England’s government without being allowed to vote for representatives in the country’s Parliament.

Defiant San Francisco residents have been doing America’s colonial ancestors proud disabling driverless taxis that wreaked havoc on the city’s challenging streets. The protests began with residents placing orange traffic cones appropriately shaped as dunce caps on the driverless vehicles, which disabled them. Last Saturday night revelers in San Francisco’s Chinatown celebrating the Lunar New Year went one step further, first vandalizing a driverless taxi owned by Google’s Waymo and then torching it with a lit firework.

First, a shout out to San Francisco’s fire department and their deft skills promptly extinguishing an electric vehicle inferno, which an alarming few fire departments know how to do. The Waymo taxi didn’t have any passengers, and with the fire promptly contained, there was no collateral damage to nearby buildings. Even the road on which the inferno occurred was hardly scathed.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed, not someone typically incensed about rampant crime and vandalism in her city, declared the Waymo torching as a “destructive act of vandalism.” The United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California tweeted a segment of federal law that laid out the potential penalties for destroying a vehicle using fire or an explosive. The minimum jail sentence if no personal injury results from the action is five years in prison, according to the statute.

During the Black Lives Matter protests, which the media repeatedly assured us were “mostly peaceful,” vehicles were routinely vandalized and set ablaze, with police cars being the automotive flambe of choice. In Los Angeles, 156 patrol cars were damaged and eight were totaled, costing taxpayers $80,000 per vehicle. New York Magazine opined that those responsible could be seen as “civil-rights heroes, even martyrs,” and the New York Times published an op-ed arguing that minimum sentences were inherently racist. Nikole Hannah-Jones, the amateur historian responsible for the Times’ controversial 1619 Project, argued that destroying property wasn’t violence.” 

San Francisco Standard, Feb. 12, 2023

The torching of the Waymo vehicle wasn’t premeditated. As reported by Autopian citing an eyewitness, a Waymo taxi caused a small holdup on a Chinatown Street because area fireworks confused the robot’s technology. Someone in a white hoodie jumped on the car and broke the windshield. Then another person jumped on the hood, causing the crowd to break out in applause. That prompted persons with skateboards to smash windows, and someone to yell, “Light that shit on fire.” Fireworks were initially thrown underneath the car, but nothing happened. Eventually, someone threw a lit firework inside the car, igniting the car.

Safe Street Rebel, an activist organization that was responsible for placing traffic cones on the hoods of robotaxis, told the San Francisco Standard that it wasn’t responsible for the Waymo torching incident. However, the organization added that it “does speak to popular sentiment towards these dangerous and unneeded contraptions.”

“People are frustrated with them having unfettered access to our streets and the issues that come with that like invasive surveillance technology,” the organization told The Standard. “We can’t speak to why this particular incident happened but it didn’t come out of nowhere.”

The raging anger San Francisco residents have about Waymo, and even more so about Cruise, GM’s robotaxi unit, is understandable, and especially notable given that the Bay area’s denizens are among those who most readily embrace new technology. Both companies have displayed an unfathomable arrogance, declaring their driverless vehicles safer than ones driven by humans, despite mounting evidence they aren’t ready for prime time – and possibly never will be.

Earlier this month a Waymo taxi collided with a cyclist riding a zero-emissions bicycle. Fortunately, the cyclist suffered only minor injuries and left the scene on their own. It’s not clear that a human driver would have avoided the cyclist under similar circumstances, but mostly thanks to Cruise, area residents have good reason to be distrustful.

NBC Bay Area, Feb. 6, 2024

San Francisco’s local NBC station reported last week that California’s DMV is investigating multiple incidents where Cruise taxis nearly mowed down children. In one incident, a driverless Cruise vehicle nearly hit a 7-year-old boy after failing to yield to him and his family while they crossed the street. In another, a Cruise taxi illegally passed through a stop sign and accelerated towards two women and two children walking in a crosswalk. The vehicle then braked and swerved around them at the last second. A video of the incident can be found here.

NBC’s story appears to validate an Intercept report last November that Cruise’s technology had problems recognizing children in certain scenarios and risked hitting them, yet the company’s management continued operating the vehicles, repeatedly insisting a commitment to the highest standards of safety.

A seemingly conscientious Cruise employee sent an anonymous letter to California’s Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) warning that the company’s vehicles were regularly stalling at intersections and blocking lanes of traffic, and that employees had concerns internally about the readiness of the self-driving car company’s technology for commercial deployment. San Francisco’s first responders repeatedly warned that Cruise’s vehicles, and to a lesser extent Waymo’s, were disrupting emergency operations, with San Francisco’s fire chief saying it was only a matter of time until a robotaxi caused a serious accident.

Despite all the safety warnings and pleas, CPUC gave Cruise a license to expand its operations round the clock. CPUC, rather than local governments, has the final say as to where driverless taxis can operate. Like Cruise, Waymo is hoping to ride roughshod over local governments.

East Bay Times, Feb. 15, 2024

San Mateo County, which includes parts of Silicon Valley, has written to the CPUC detailing its fierce opposition to Waymo driverless taxis being allowed in that jurisdiction.

“Waymo failed to communicate in any depth or detail with county staff about the specifics of Waymo’s proposal to expand its operations, largely unfettered, into San Mateo County,” the county’s letter said. “Had Waymo meaningfully engaged with County Staff with respect to this matter, we would have shared that this expansion is of significant public interest and requires much closer scrutiny and stakeholder outreach than the advice letter process can provide.”

The media’s failure to scrutinize CPUC’s approval of Cruise’s license to operate 24/7 is a major journalism fail. CPUC is a controversial agency of five commissioners appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, including John Reynolds, who previously served as Cruise’s general counsel. The agency has a history of maintaining cozy relationships with the businesses it regulates. A former CPUC chair shared “two good bottles of Pinot” at his Sonoma vacation home with former officials of PG&E, the Third World utility serving most of California that’s regulated by the agency.

Another media fail is allowing GM CEO Mary Barra to escape culpability for Cruise’s reckless safety disregard. GM hired a law firm to investigate Cruise’s business practices, which subsequently issued a report blaming poor management, ineptitude, and cultural issues for the company’s various controversies. Prior to the law firm issuing its report, Cruise’s co-founder and former CEO and nearly a dozen senior Cruise executives were forced out. No doubt they were given lucrative severance agreements as a condition for keeping their mouths shut and taking the fall for the company’s implosion.

In addition to being chair and CEO of GM, Barra is chair of Cruise, and was ultimately responsible for Cruise’s aggressive expansion plans and riding roughshod over officials in San Francisco and other cities. Indeed, Barra repeatedly told Wall Street that Cruise would generate $1 billion in annual revenues by next year and $50 billion a year by 2030. Cruise’s management no doubt was feeling extraordinary pressure to meet those numbers.

Barra still shamelessly touts Cruise’s potential, calling it “an incredibly valuable asset” and vowing to relaunch its operations later this year. People far more knowledgeable than I believe Barra is pursuing a pipedream.

In a bold feature that’s aged remarkably well, Businessweek in October 2022 published this story saying driverless taxis were years away.

“It’s a scam,” George Hotz, whose company Inc. makes a driver-assistance system similar to Tesla Inc.’s Autopilot, told Businessweek. “These companies have squandered tens of billions of dollars.” 

Another visionary skeptic was Sam Anthony, co-founder and CTO of Perceptive Automata, a now-defunct AV company.

“The autonomous vehicle industry — particularly the companies developing and testing robotaxis — has gotten away for too long with selling a vision of the future that they should know perfectly well is never going to come to pass,” Anthony wrote in a 2022 Substack newsletter commentary.  

GM and Google appear determined to keep forging ahead with their Cruise and Waymo driverless taxi businesses, and CPUC likely will allow them to. Both companies have squandered the public’s goodwill and any mishap, however minor, will serve as confirmation of the flawed technologies operating their robotic vehicles.

Don’t be surprised if torching Cruise and Waymo vehicles becomes commonplace in San Francisco and elsewhere. If California’s regulators won’t honor the will of the people, the natives will take matters into their own hands.

It’s an American tradition dating back to the 18th century.

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