The office where I work in San Francisco faces Cesar Chavez Street, a four-lane thoroughfare that begins on the eastern edge of the city, in the Bayview, and runs about five miles west. Formerly known as Army Street, it is a largely charmless artery. Over the past few years, procrastination, distraction, or general malaise have often left me staring at myself, idly watching traffic. There’s nothing unusual to see, except for the Waymo cars: white Jaguar electric SUVs, equipped with sensors and cameras, their roofs LIDARam spinning.
Self-driving cars are not a fixture in most American cities, at least not yet. (New York City recently approved a modest fleet of about half a dozen.) But San Francisco is full of such vehicles, and has been for a while. Most of the cars are owned by Waymo, a subsidiary of Alphabet, or Cruise, a subsidiary of General Motors. Sleek and supple, they float lazily through the streets day and night, collecting and processing massive amounts of training data, and emitting a low-pitched purr. The vehicles, which seem to travel in small schools and even live their own lives, have something underwater. Dozens of Waymo cars used to congregate on a residential street in the Presidio, constantly navigating themselves into a stubborn dead end; earlier this year, after a driverless Cruise car was stopped by police, it took it upon itself to run away from the scene, to what a Cruise spokesperson later deemed a “safer” location down the street.
California began permitting and regulating autonomous vehicles in 2012, and initially the cars were found primarily in the Silicon Valley suburbs, on low-traffic streets near corporate headquarters. In recent years, they have become more prominent in the city and show up en masse, like commuters. Now there are hundreds – a regional idiosyncrasy that, through sheer saturation, is beginning to lose its novelty. In June, the California Public Utilities Commission allowed Cruise to charge fares for rides in San Francisco; the company’s 30-car fleet became the first to be authorized by the state to operate without human drivers in the car. The robo-taxis—white Chevy Bolts with orange details and prominently displayed names like Poppy, Tostada, and Matcha—operate between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., in a defined part of town with little traffic and few hills, and have a speed limit of thirty miles per hour. The Cruise car pulling away from its stop was part of an earlier test group, and the cars have acted in other surprising ways: Recently, about twenty of them got stuck on a single block in Hayes Valley, blocking traffic; some were eventually rescued by a group of Cruise employees, who climbed onto the driver’s seats to move them.
Outside of the Cruise robot fleet, most autonomous vehicles in San Francisco are never fully autonomous. Instead, they are occupied by contract operators – drivers who sit behind the wheel and switch between manual and autonomous modes. Pedestrians, cyclists and fellow motorists do not know whether a particular vehicle is in self-driving mode. Most importantly, of course, is whether the vehicle is moving while the person in it has their hands off the wheel. But it’s also possible to draw conclusions based on 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 unknown not geographically, but in its newly built form: new stadium, new apartments, new medical buildings, new sidewalks. My companion and I took a wrong turn onto a side street where a Waymo car was conferring at an intersection. We slowed down our bikes. The car signaled to the left and then to the right, before proceeding in a straight line, crawling.
If marketers and entrepreneurs can be trusted, the fully autonomous future will be around the corner 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 with minimal success.) Depending on who you ask, the delay is due to technological inadequacy or regulatory conservatism. The division comes down to a disagreement about the method: is it better to test first and tweak to perfection later, or vice versa? (according to a recent one) article in the Washington After(two hundred and seventy car accidents involving Teslas in the past year have involved the car’s Autopilot software.) For now, the most likely future in San Francisco seems to be one in which controlled autonomous vehicles — or very limited driverless vehicles — keep tracing on the street most of the day, making slow and cautious loops, logging miles until the next regulatory or licensing advance. They are ubiquitous and inaccessible, and they are a strange part of the city that residents have to navigate through.
In the first year of the pandemic, I saw so many Waymo cars so often that I thought I must be suffering from a unique variety of paranoia, or at least some form of frequency bias. The cars seemed to be everywhere. As I sat at my desk, I seemed to see one or two every time I looked over Cesar Chavez. One time, while walking through the mission, I passed six in the span of a few blocks. Were there a disproportionate amount of Waymo cars, or were there just fewer drivers on the road? I eventually found out that there was a huge Waymo warehouse near the eastern end of Cesar Chavez, in what had once been a truck terminal. It contained row after row of electric chargers, 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 – I wondered what it meant that an idealized transport model, touted as the future, was one that minimized human interaction. If the fully autonomous future never came, what or who would the cars be for? Earlier this year, Vice reported that the San Francisco Police Department used the footage captured by Waymo and Cruise cars. I began to see the vehicles as promoting certain ideas or values of urban life: privatization, atomization, surveillance. Their constant roaming patrol, their opacity and ubiquity, their dull and cute sameness, their programmatic logic seemed to predict a future without privacy or mystery.
Over time, I think the Waymo cars have been linked to another local phenomenon: the yellow, cartoon honey bears, rendered in a two-tone pop art style, that spread throughout San Francisco during the pandemic. The soft-edged, full-bellied bears are painted on walls, stenciled onto plywood, taped to the inside of people’s front windows, or tucked away in advertising kiosks on the sides of bus shelters; they often wear themed outfits, their dead eyes and arched eyebrows suggesting either harmless confusion or simmering hostility. Last year, there was a time when the bears were like the cars: I couldn’t seem to turn a corner without running into one with a facemask, baseball cap, or a Ruth Bader Ginsburg jabot.
The honey bears were created by fnnch, a local street artist whose work has been scattered across San Francisco since 2013. fnnch is in his thirties, a Stanford graduate and a former tech entrepreneur; occasionally he stencils sea creatures, birds, poppies and a pair of parted lips, but the honey bear is his signature and primary subject. The original Honey Bear, billed as Classic Bear, has a yellow screw cap with a pointed tip. It stands still, arms frozen at the sides. Over time, the screw cap has been replaced by various types of headgear, often professional (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 business affinities: MacBear Pro wears a MacBook, Lyft Bear is pink and has a mustache, and so on. Like a paper doll, the honey bear never changes his pose, only his accessories, which are not subtle and are reminiscent of last-minute Halloween costumes. fnnch sells limited edition prints, paintings, and stencilled woodcuts through its website, for prices starting around three hundred dollars and going up to five thousand; certain editions are designed as fundraisers or benefit pieces, with a portion of the proceeds funneled to non-profit organizations. Depending on your favorite aesthetic references, the bears can be art, merch or advertising. Last year, Williams-Sonoma launched a line of fnnch honey bear plates, spatulas and aprons — “stock the kitchen with culinary art” — and Sotheby’s sold Burner Bear, a tireless ursid wearing heart-shaped sunglasses and a scarf, in a Burning Man benefit auction. (fnnch brought honey bear sculptures to the festival three years in a row.)
The honey bear, fnnch said, is a “universal symbol of happiness,” positive and nostalgic. Maybe the bears make people feel good – I hope so, because they are everywhere. A honey bear-shaped olive martini graces the side of a bar in the Mission; a habit bear 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 stiff outside a Shake Shack, with food from Shake Shack. In early 2020, as San Francisco sheltered in place, fnnch began sticking themed bears on the windows of downtown businesses: Soap Bear was carrying a pump dispenser upside down, and Mask Bear’s face was partially obscured by an N95. The bears sired more bears, as if in the throes of a frenetic mating season, and in those months about two hundred new honey bears appeared over the plywood cladding of the town. Through its website, fnnch sold approximately 1,000 prints and paintings and donated more than a hundred thousand dollars of the proceeds to local non-profit organizations working on COVID– relief initiatives.