Waymo cars and honey bears
The desk I work at in San Francisco overlooks Cesar Chavez Street, a four-lane thoroughfare that begins on the eastern edge of the city, in Bayview, and zigzags west for about three miles. Formerly known as Army Street, it is a largely irritable artery. Many times over the past few years, I’ve found myself staring at it and idly watching the traffic, out of hesitation, distraction, or general malaise. Apart from the Waymo cars, there is nothing unusual to see – white, electric Jaguar SUVs, equipped with sensors and cameras, their roof LIDARturns.
Self-driving cars are not a staple in most American cities, at least not yet. (New York City recently authorized a modest fleet of about half a dozen.) But San Francisco is full of such vehicles, and has been for some time. Most of the cars are owned by Waymo, an Alphabet subsidiary, or Cruise, a subsidiary of General Motors. Supple and lithe, they lazily drift through the streets day and night, collecting and processing massive amounts of training data while emitting a low purr. There is something subaquatic about the vehicles that seem to travel in small schools and even lead their own lives. Previously, dozens of Waymo cars would congregate on a residential street in the Presidio, constantly navigating an unsolvable dead end; Earlier this year, after a driverless Cruise car was pulled over by police officers, it took over the task of driving away from the scene, to a location a Cruise spokesman later described as “safer” than the block.
California began legalizing and regulating autonomous vehicles in 2012, and initially the cars were mostly found in the Silicon Valley suburbs, on quiet streets near the company’s headquarters. In recent years they have had a more conspicuous presence in the city, appearing en masse like commuters. Now there are hundreds of them – a regional curiosity that is gradually losing its novelty through sheer saturation. In June, the California Public Utilities Commission allowed Cruise to begin collecting fares for trips in San Francisco. The company’s 30-vehicle fleet was the first to be authorized by the state to drive without human drivers in the car. The robo-cabs — white Chevy Bolts with orange detailing and prominent names like Poppy, Tostada, and Matcha — operate between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. in a gated section of town that happens to have little traffic and have a speed limit of thirty Miles per hour. The Cruise car that pulled away from its traffic stop was part of an earlier test group, and the cars have behaved in other surprising ways: Recently, about twenty of them got stuck on a single block in Hayes Valley, backing up traffic; Some were eventually rescued by a group of Cruise employees who climbed into the driver’s seats to move them.
Outside of Cruise’s robotic fleet, most of San Francisco’s autonomous vehicles are never fully autonomous. Instead, they’ll be manned by contract drivers — drivers who sit behind the wheel and toggle between manual and autonomous modes. Pedestrians, cyclists and other motorists have no way of knowing if a given vehicle is in self-driving mode. Of course, the most important clue is whether the vehicle is moving while the person inside has their hands off the wheel. But it’s also possible to draw conclusions about how good a car appears to be at making decisions. A few months ago, cycling home after a drink with friends, I found myself in Mission Bay, a neighborhood unfamiliar to me not geographically but in terms of its structural novelty: new stadium, new condominiums, new medical buildings, new sidewalks. My companion and I took a wrong turn down a side street where a Waymo car was parked at an intersection, contemplating. We slowed our bikes down. The car signaled left, then right before continuing in a straight line at creep speed.
If marketers and entrepreneurs can be trusted, the fully autonomous future has been around for at least a decade. (In 2019, Elon Musk stated that Tesla would activate one million robo-taxis by the end of 2020, but today the company has no robo-taxis, let alone a commercialized autonomous vehicle service; Apple has been working on self-driving vehicles for eight years minimal success.) Depending on who you ask, the delay is either due to technological imperfection or regulatory conservatism. The split boils down to a methodological disagreement: is it better to test first and tweak to perfection later, or vice versa? (According to a recent article in Washington post, two hundred and seventy car accidents involving Teslas over the past year were linked to the car’s Autopilot software.) Right now, the most likely future in San Francisco seems to be one in which driverless vehicles — or very limited driverless ones — continue leaving their mark on the roads most of the day, making slow and careful loops, driving miles to the next regulatory or licensing advance. Pervasive and inaccessible, they are an odd part of the city that residents must navigate.
In the first year of the pandemic, I saw so many Waymo cars so many times that I thought I was suffering from a unique kind of paranoia, or at least some form of frequency distortion. The cars seemed to be everywhere. Sitting at my desk, I seemed to see one or two every time I looked at Cesar Chavez. Once, while walking through the Mission, I passed six within a few blocks. Were there a disproportionate number of Waymo cars on the road or were there simply fewer drivers on the road? Eventually, I learned that near the east end of Cesar Chavez, there was a huge Waymo warehouse that was once a truck terminal. It contained a number of electric charging stations to which the cars kept returning. I wasn’t paranoid. I was just in the right place at the right time all the time.
I found the cars symbolically interesting – and wondered what it meant that an idealized transportation model being touted as the future was one that minimized human interaction. Assuming the fully autonomous future never came, what would the cars be for, or for whom? Earlier this year, Vice reported that the San Francisco Police Department is using footage captured by Waymo and Cruise cars. I began to see the vehicles as promoters of certain ideas or values of urban life: privatization, atomization, surveillance. Its constant, roving patrol, its opacity and ubiquity, its sober and cutesy uniformity, its programmatic logic seemed to anticipate a future without privacy or mystery.
Over time, I think the Waymo cars have become associated with another local phenomenon: the two-toned, pop-art-style yellow honey bears that spread throughout San Francisco during the pandemic. The soft-edged, fat-bellied bears were painted on walls, stenciled onto sheets of plywood, taped to the inside of people’s front windows, or placed in advertising kiosks on the sides of bus stops; They often don themed outfits, their dead eyes and arched brows suggesting either innocent confusion or simmering hostility. There was a time last year when the bears were like the cars: it seemed like I couldn’t turn a corner without encountering one in a face mask, baseball cap, or Ruth Bader Ginsburg jabot.
The honey bears are made by fnnch, a local street artist whose work has been scattered throughout San Francisco since 2013. fnnch is a Stanford grad in his 30s and former tech entrepreneur; He occasionally stencils sea creatures, birds, poppies and a pair of parted lips, but the honey bear is his trademark and his main subject. Dubbed the Classic Bear, the original honey bear has a yellow screw cap with a pointed tip. It stands stock still, arms frozen at its sides. Over time, the screw-on cap has been replaced by various types of headgear, often work-related (a chef’s hat, a conductor’s hat, a combat helmet); Mobster Bear wears a white fedora, Tupac Bear wears a knotted red bandana, and Pink Pussyhat Bear, who is yellow, wears a pink pussyhat.
The bears have company affinities – MacBear Pro carries a MacBook, Lyft Bear is pink and sports a mustache, and so on. Like a paper doll, the honey bear never changes its stance, only its unobtrusive accessories are reminiscent of last-minute Halloween costumes. fnnch sells limited edition stenciled prints, paintings and woodcuts through its website with prices starting at around $300 and ending at $5,000; Certain expenses are designed as fundraisers or benefit items, with a portion of the proceeds going to charitable organizations. Depending on your favorite aesthetic references, the bears can be art, merch, or advertising. Last year Williams-Sonoma launched a line of plates, spatulas and aprons featuring Honey Bear – “stock the kitchen with culinary art” – and Sotheby’s sold Burner Bear, a tireless Ursid accessorised with heart-shaped sunglasses and a scarf a Burning Man benefit auction. (fnnch brought honey bear sculptures to the festival three years in a row.)
The honey bear, according to fnnch, is a “universal good luck symbol”, positive and nostalgic. Maybe the bears make people feel good – I hope so because they are everywhere. A martini with an olive in the shape of a honey bear graces the side of a bar in Mission; a bear in a cowl is painted on the building that houses the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a playful, non-profit, unorthodox ministry of queer and trans activists; In San Mateo, four bears stand stiffly outside a shake shack, holding food from the shake shack. In early 2020, as San Francisco took shelter, fnnch began pasting themed wheat bears onto the boarded-up windows of downtown stores: Soap Bear wore a pump dispenser on his head, and Mask Bear’s face was partially obscured by an N95 . The bears fathered more bears as if they were in the midst of a hectic mating season, and during those months about two hundred new honey bears materialized on the city’s plywood ceilings. Through his website, fnnch sold about a thousand prints and paintings and donated more than $100,000 of the proceeds to local charities COVID-Aid initiatives.