‘Week of Cone’: Activist Group Is Protesting Driverless Cars by Disabling Them With Traffic Cones

Derided as a “prank” by other outlets, the Week of Cone is part of a storied American tradition of urban residents opposing the expansion of cars in the city.
cones on cars
Photos: via Twitter @safestreetrebel
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A group of anti-car activists in San Francisco have been disabling driverless cars owned by Waymo and Cruise by placing traffic cones on their hoods which appear to render the vehicles inoperable. Far from being a “prank” as others have described it, the group, which calls itself Safe Street Rebel, is reviving a century-old practice of U.S. urban residents protesting against more cars in cities.


The protest event, dubbed by the group as the "Week of Cone," comes as a powerful state regulatory body will rule on whether the AV companies can rapidly expand both the number of cars they operate in San Francisco and expand the hours of operation from the middle of the night to 24/7, an expansion that is opposed not just by anti-car activists but also the city’s fire and police chiefs

“We’re just generally trying to push back on tech really taking over our cities,” a member of the group who asked to remain anonymous because they’re being accused of committing crimes told Motherboard. “We view these not as some revolutionary new mode of transportation or anything, but really just another way for auto companies…to further entrench car dominance and car reliance in our cities.”

Safe Street Rebel initially came together during the pandemic to advocate for the continuing car-free use of roads like the Great Highway and JFK Drive. Since then, the member told Motherboard, the group has become “involved in a broader fight for more pedestrian-friendly cities and less cars and more transit.” 

Currently, Cruise and Waymo AVs operate under limited permits from the California Public Utilities Commission. The commission is expected to rule on Thursday whether Waymo and Cruise can charge fares for their services. The state DMV issues permits on operations.


The fact that state regulatory bodies have control over whether the AVs operate on local San Francisco streets has long been a point of contention for San Franciscans opposed to the services. “We want to make it clear as a city and as people in the city we don’t consent to be the unpaid human guinea pigs of these for profit private companies,” the member of Safe Street Rebel said.

Part of their motivation for the conings, the member said, is the group has noticed increasingly aggressive behavior from the driverless cars. Whereas the cars used to come to complete stops before crosswalks if a pedestrian was detected, they now do “the creeping slow charge thing,” the member said, and “kind of inch into the crosswalk” to bully people out of the way. “It’s kind of intimidating and menacing,” the member said, and a potential harbinger of how the cars will behave if they become more prevalent and accepted as part of the city streets.

The group got the idea for the conings by chance. The person claims a few of them walking together one night saw a cone on the hood of an AV, which appeared disabled. They weren’t sure at the time which came first; perhaps someone had placed the cone on the AV’s hood to signify it was disabled rather than the other way around. But, it gave them an idea, and when they tested it, they found that a cone on a hood renders the vehicles little more than a multi-ton hunk of useless metal. The group suspects the cone partially blocks the LIDAR detectors on the roof of the car, in much the same way that a human driver wouldn’t be able to safely drive with a cone on the hood. But there is no human inside to get out and simply remove the cone, so the car is stuck.


In a statement to the San Francisco Examiner, Waymo called the conings “vandalism” and vowed to call the police. Motherboard asked Waymo to clarify how the placing of a cone on the hood of a car classifies as vandalism which, under California legal code, requires defacing, damaging, or destroying property. Motherboard did not hear back by publication time.

Cruise spokesperson Drew Pusateri told Motherboard “Intentionally obstructing vehicles gets in the way of those efforts and risks creating traffic congestion for local residents.” He added that the conings have so far had no significant impact on service and says the company has data that suggests AVs are safer than human drivers.

Even though they primarily operate in the middle of the night, Cruise vehicles in particular have been the subject of dozens of incidents where people have called 911 due to baffling AV behavior. They have also blocked buses and tested the patience of emergency response services to the point where the city’s fire chief has publicly opposed their expansion.

Conings join a long tradition of American city residents protesting the further incursion of cars onto city streets. In Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, historian Peter Norton documented the “broad anti-automobile campaign” that demonized motorists simply for existing and how auto industry-backed campaigns successfully flipped the script to characterize cars as the ultimate emblem of freedom, blaming anyone who got hit by them for being careless or not following newly-minted laws governing street space. Similarly, people in cities across the world joined anti-highway building movements in the 1960s as part of the “freeway revolt” era that correctly diagnosed freeways as choking downtowns rather than saving them. The Safe Street Rebel member Motherboard spoke to is concerned that something similar may happen with AVs, where they are being cast as an improvement for cities but will ultimately make living there worse. If they become prominent enough, the group argues, new laws will be written to prioritize their movement and safety at the expense of those outside the vehicle, making cities more car-dominant and less pleasant than they already are.

While AV companies tout their safety record and generally try to cast their vehicles as part of the solution to rapidly-increasing deaths from cars in the U.S., Safe Street Rebel are part of a larger anti-car movement that is skeptical of that narrative, seeing it as something the companies adopted only after spending billions of dollars researching the technology. 

“Whoever or whatever is driving,” the member said, “a car is still a car.”

Correction: A previous version of this story said the CPUC vote Thursday was for authorizing a fleet expansion. It is to allow the companies to charge fares.