As Americans woke up this morning to what’s sure to be an election slog, high-end retailers have boarded up their storefronts (not without being made fun of online) and closed up shop in anticipation of protests from both sides of the political spectrum. One prominent company doing so? Waymo, who has reportedly shuttered its self-driving car operation in San Francisco.
According to The Verge, the autonomous vehicle company, an Alphabet subsidiary that launched a self-driving taxi service in-and-around Phoenix just last month, packed away its San Francisco fleet on Election Day and on Wednesday, November 5. In emails, Chris Cheung, general manager at the fleet’s operations vendor Transdev, said that the decision to store their cars was made “out of an abundance of caution ahead of some of the planned protests around the general election.”
Instead, the entire fleet has been driven (by humans) to a secure facility in Mountain View, California, and the drivers reimbursed to take cars back to their personal vehicles. AV testing will continue in Mountain View and in Waymo’s Phoenix markets.
This all raises the question of “why shutdown service in San Francisco, though?” The reasoning is likely threefold: If violence breaks out in the streets, Waymo will want to prevent damage to its cars (as was the case when people attacked them in 2018), to keep its vehicles from hitting people in the streets, and perhaps most nefariously, to deprive protestors of transportation to areas of projected unrest.
Waymo is staying tight-lipped, but as CNN reports, it’s far from the only transportation company restricting access to areas of possible strife. Cruise, GM’s comparable self-driving program, is also planning on shutting down operations in San Francisco. In Portland, Oregon, the government will reportedly geofence off sections of downtown that have seen heavy protesting to stop bike and scooter-sharing services—a smaller-scale portent of what could happen if self-driving cars become the norm.
In Seattle, the government is similarly working to remove publicly-available scooters and bikes from city streets, and in Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has floated the nuclear option: shutting down all transit if things get out of hand. This wouldn’t be the first time, as access to downtown Chicago was strategically blocked off during a summer of protests against racial injustice and police brutality.