The desk where I work in San Francisco overlooks Cesar Chavez Street, a four-lane thoroughfare that starts at the eastern edge of the city, in the Bayview, and runs west at a jag for about three miles. Formerly known as Army Street, it is a largely charmless artery. In recent years, owing to procrastination, distraction, or general malaise, I’ve often found myself staring out at it, idly watching the traffic. There is nothing very unusual to see except for the Waymo cars—white, electric Jaguar S.U.V.s, kitted out with sensors and cameras, their rooftop LIDARs spinning.
Self-driving cars are not a fixture of most American cities, at least not yet. (New York City recently approved a modest fleet of about a half-dozen.) But San Francisco is full of such vehicles, and has been for some time. Most of the cars belong to Waymo, an Alphabet subsidiary, or Cruise, a subsidiary of General Motors. Sleek and smooth, they drift languidly through the streets day and night, gathering and processing huge volumes of training data and emitting a low purr. There is something subaquatic about the vehicles, which seem to travel in small schools, and even to live their own lives. Dozens of Waymo cars used to accumulate on a residential street in the Presidio, continuously navigating themselves into an intractable dead end; earlier this year, after a driverless Cruise car was pulled over by cops, it took it upon itself to scoot away from the scene, to what a Cruise spokesperson later deemed a “safer” location down the block.
California began allowing and regulating autonomous vehicles in 2012, and at first the cars were primarily found in the suburbs of Silicon Valley, on low-traffic streets close to corporate headquarters. During the past few years, they have had a more noticeable presence in the city, showing up en masse, like commuters. Now there are hundreds of them—a regional oddity that, through pure saturation, is starting to lose its novelty. In June, the California Public Utilities Commission allowed Cruise to begin charging fares for rides in San Francisco; the company’s thirty-car fleet became the first authorized by the state to operate without human drivers in the car. The robo-taxis—white Chevy Bolts with orange detailing and prominently displayed names such as Poppy, Tostada, and Matcha—work between ten at night and six in the morning, in a circumscribed part of the city that happens to have minimal traffic and few hills, and have a speed limit of thirty miles per hour. The Cruise car that drove away from its traffic stop was part 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, jamming up traffic; some were eventually rescued by a group of Cruise employees, who climbed into the driver’s seats to move them.
Outside of the Cruise robo-fleet, most of the autonomous vehicles in San Francisco are never entirely autonomous. Instead, they are occupied by contract operators—drivers who sit behind the wheel, toggling between manual and autonomous modes. Pedestrians, cyclists, and fellow-motorists have no way of knowing whether any given vehicle is in self-driving mode. The main tell, of course, is if the vehicle is moving while the person inside has his hands off the wheel. But it’s also possible to arrive at inferences based on how good a car seems to be at making decisions. Several months ago, biking home after drinks with friends, I found myself in Mission Bay, a neighborhood that was unfamiliar not in any geographic sense but in its constructed newness: new stadium, new condos, new medical buildings, new sidewalks. My companion and I made a wrong turn onto a side street, where a Waymo car idled at an intersection, deliberating. We slowed our bikes. The car signalled left, then signalled right, before advancing in a straight line, at a crawl.
If marketers and entrepreneurs are to be trusted, the fully autonomous future has been just around the corner for at least a decade. (In 2019, Elon Musk declared that Tesla would activate a 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 whom you ask, the delay is attributable to either technological imperfection or regulatory conservatism. The division boils down to a disagreement regarding method: Is it better to test first and tweak to perfection later, or vice versa? (According to a recent article in the Washington Post, two hundred and seventy car crashes involving Teslas during 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 drivered autonomous vehicles—or highly limited driverless ones—continue to trace the streets for most of the day, making slow and cautious loops, logging miles until the next regulatory or licensing advancement. Pervasive and inaccessible, they are a strange fixture of the city that residents must navigate around.
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 appeared to be everywhere. Sitting at my desk, I seemed to see one or two every time I looked out over Cesar Chavez. Once, on a walk through the Mission, I passed six in the span of a few blocks. Were there a disproportionate number of Waymo cars, or just fewer drivers on the road? Eventually, I learned that there was a massive Waymo warehouse near the eastern end of Cesar Chavez, in what had once been a trucking terminal. It contained row upon row of electric chargers, to which the cars were constantly returning. I wasn’t paranoid. I was just in the right place at the right time, all the time.
I came to find the cars symbolically interesting—to wonder what it meant that an idealized transportation model, touted as the future, was one that minimized human interaction. Suppose the fully autonomous future never arrived—then what, or whom, would the cars be for? Earlier this year, Vice reported that the San Francisco Police Department was making use of 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, roving patrol, their opacity and ubiquity, their bland and cutesy sameness, their programmatic logic seemed to presage a future without privacy or mystery.
Over time, the Waymo cars have become linked, in my mind, to another local phenomenon: the yellow, cartoon honey bears, rendered in a two-tone Pop-art style, that proliferated throughout San Francisco during the pandemic. Soft-edged and full-bellied, the bears have been painted on walls, stencilled on plywood boards, taped to the inside of people’s front windows, or tucked into advertising kiosks on the sides of bus shelters; they often wear themed outfits, their dead eyes and curved brows suggesting either innocent confusion or simmering hostility. There was a period, last year, when the bears were like the cars: it seemed that I couldn’t turn a corner without encountering one in a face mask, a baseball cap, or a Ruth Bader Ginsburg jabot.
The honey bears are made by fnnch, a local street artist whose work has been scattered across San Francisco since 2013. fnnch is a thirtysomething Stanford graduate and former tech entrepreneur; occasionally he stencils sea animals, 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 stock still, arms frozen at its sides. Over time, the screw cap has been replaced with various types of headwear, often vocational (a chef’s toque, a conductor’s cap, a combat helmet); Mobster Bear wears a white fedora, Tupac Bear wears a knotted red bandana, and Pink Pussyhat Bear, which is yellow, wears a pink pussyhat.
The bears have corporate affinities—MacBear Pro carries a MacBook, Lyft Bear is pink and mustachioed, and so on. Like a paper doll, the honey bear never changes its posture, only its accessories, which are unsubtle, bringing to mind last-minute Halloween costumes. fnnch sells limited-edition prints, paintings, and stencilled wood cutouts through his Web site, for prices that start around three hundred dollars, and top out at five thousand; certain editions are designed as fund-raisers or benefit pieces, with a cut of proceeds funnelled toward nonprofits. Depending on your preferred aesthetic references, the bears can be art, or 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, an indefatigable ursid accessorized with 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 has said, is a “universal symbol of happiness,” positive and nostalgic. Maybe the bears do make people feel good—I should hope so, because they’re everywhere. A Martini with a honey-bear-shaped olive graces the side of a bar in the Mission; a bear in a habit is painted on the building housing the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a playful nonprofit unorthodox ministry of queer and trans activists; in San Mateo, four bears stand stiffly outside of a Shake Shack, holding food from Shake Shack. In early 2020, as San Francisco sheltered in place, fnnch began wheat-pasting thematic bears on the boarded windows of businesses downtown: Soap Bear bore a pump dispenser on its head, and Mask Bear’s face was partially obscured by an N95. The bears begat more bears, as if in the throes of a frantic mating season, and in those months around two hundred new honey bears materialized across the city’s plywood coverings. Through his Web site, fnnch sold about a thousand prints and paintings, donating more than a hundred thousand dollars from the proceeds to local nonprofits working on COVID-relief initiatives.