Location Hazard

As ground zero for new technologies, San Francisco has to develop laws to regulate them — before self-driving cars, electric skateboards, and delivery robots take over the city.

Pro-car activists and vehicle-centric legislation were his most common opponents, but in 2002,  it was Segway advocates who hassled Dave Snyder the most. As the executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, his voice mattered in an upcoming battle between safe-sidewalk advocates at City Hall, and manufacturers of an $8,000 motorized scooter pushing for San Francisco to allow the vehicles on sidewalks. Then-Supervisor Gavin Newsom supported the company.

But Snyder was a tough sell.

“We were skeptical,” he tells SF Weekly. “We felt like sidewalks were for people walking, and people on motorized vehicles with an untested safety record shouldn’t be allowed in that space.”

But he was willing to compromise and share the streets with the new transportation devices.

“If that means the bike lanes start to get crowded, that’s fine, we’ll widen them,” he reasoned.

As pressure mounted, Segway sent what Snyder calls a “high-powered mercenary” to the Bicycle Coalition’s offices — then on Grant Avenue — to persuade him of their appeal. That “mercenary” was Karen Skelton, Pres. Bill Clinton’s former deputy director for political affairs.

“She came to the office and brought a Segway with her,” Snyder says.

Skelton offered him a test ride in the building’s hallway, explaining to him that when a rider steps off, it would automatically stop within five feet.

“She rides it down the hallway, and a little more than five feet from the end, she steps off it,” Snyder says. But, “It kept going. It slammed into the marble wall, which was really a thin veneer. The marble cracked, and pieces of it fell on the floor.”

Worried — after all, he was a tenant of the building — Snyder pointed out the shards of marble all over the carpet.

Skelton looked down.

“Those must have been there before,” she said.

The story made the local news, and when a reporter from SF Weekly asked Segway’s Director of Regulatory Affairs, Matt Dailida, about the incident, he skirted around the machine’s failure.

“As I understand, nobody could say for a fact that those scratches were not on the wall prior to this incident,” he said.

Sixteen years after a Segway drove itself into a wall, San Francisco continues to struggle with new technologies, which often appear before laws to regulate them. Self-driving cars cruise down one-way streets in SoMa. Electric skateboards share Market Street with bicycles. Big, rectangular delivery robots putter down sidewalks in the Castro. For a brief period, creepy R2-D2-like robots roamed independently around the SPCA parking lot to deter vehicle break-ins. Kids and adults alike take their drones to the sky above parks, beaches, baseball games, and parades.

Segways ended up hitting a wall in more ways than one. Although Steve Jobs once said it would be “as big a deal as the PC,” and venture capitalist John Doerr (who backed Netscape and Amazon) said it would be bigger than the internet, neither are even remotely true. The technology was far from perfect: Segway recalled all its machines in 2003, after customers kept falling off when the battery got low. The fuss died out, and aside from an eccentric Jesus impersonator who flies around protests riding one with a little dog on board, San Francisco Segways are most commonly spotted in Golden Gate Park, as nerdy gaggles of tourists clad in helmets and safety vests ogle Stow Lake.

A group of tourists pose on Segways in Golden Gate Park. (Courtesy of Electric Tour Company)

But other new technologies will, no doubt, succeed — and the world may be better for them. Someday, we’ll reach a day when grandpa’s old Ford in the garage is a novelty because it’s not self-driving, and runs on gasoline. Electric cars are the future, and autonomous vehicles are close behind.

Whether inventions are successful or not, San Francisco has to find a way to deal with them.  We’re located smack in the middle of thousands of technology companies, filled with programmers and engineers who spend their days reinventing the wheels. Because of our geography and local economy, we experience much of these new inventions before the rest of the country does.

In best-case scenarios, this means proactively creating policies that support technological invention while preserving the integrity and safety of our city’s residents. But more often than not, something is released before policymakers even know what it is.

It’s not always their fault. For companies with venture backing and a deadline, the patch of street or sidewalk outside the office will do just fine as a testing ground. But in an industry where confidence in one’s product is key to funding — and funding is key to success — this testing often occurs before products are street-ready, with pedestrian advocates and members of government organizations chasing after them to keep up.

There is hope, however. After all, the Department of Motor Vehicles was created to handle new technology. At the turn of the last century, large, smoke-spewing machines began blasting down California streets, spooking horses and thrilling children. Cars were controversial, dangerous, expensive, and unregulated. But as the DMV itself puts it on its website, the invention “had a more profound and greater impact upon the state than any other invention and would eventually become incorporated into all aspects of California life.”

For the first half of the 20th century, lawmakers struggled to catch up. In 1905, California’s Secretary of State passed a requirement that every vehicle display a license number on its rear, in 3-inch-high black letters on a white background. In order to receive a license number vehicles had to have “satisfactory lamps, good brakes, and either a bell or a horn.”

Ten years later, the DMV was created — not a day too late. That year, 191,000 vehicles were registered.

In San Francisco, those new technologies are slowly being regulated as they appear — but legislating reactively is exhausting. Leading the charge for proactive regulation in City Hall is Supervisor Norman Yee, who’s building a San Francisco task force to monitor any new technologies that hit our streets.

In December 2017, he called a Board of Supervisors vote to regulate delivery robots “déjà vu.” 

“Maybe five years from now, when we have 20,000 robots roaming the sidewalks and have to walk on the streets, then maybe we’ll do something,” Yee said. “That seems to be a pattern that we’ve had in San Francisco, and I don’t think we should let things get out of hand again.”

Uber’s self-driving test cars were quickly ousted from S.F. streets in 2016. (Photo by Jessica Christian)

In the past two years, few incidents have epitomized an “out of hand” relationship between new technology and government more perfectly than Uber’s self-driving cars.

We should have known they were coming. All through the summer of 2016, Uber SUVs could be spotted cruising around town with odd cameras mounted on their roofs. As they were similar to Google’s mapping cars, many people — including this reporter — assumed Uber was creating its own software to help its drivers get around town better. In fact, the cars were developing a three-dimensional map that would help autonomous vehicles navigate the city.

On the morning of Dec. 14, 2016, Uber’s self-driving cars hit the streets. “Self-driving cars have been picking up and dropping off riders on the streets of Pittsburgh for the last three months, and now we’re excited to bring them to our hometown,” a statement emailed to customers read.

But the optimism didn’t last long. At 10:37 a.m., only a couple hours after the announcement landed in inboxes, a taxi driver’s dashcam caught a self-driving Uber running a red light in SoMa. He sent the damning evidence to Examiner transportation reporter Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez, who quickly posted it online.

The video went viral. TV stations and national publications immediately hopped on the story. By 6 p.m. that evening, the Department of Motor Vehicles threatened legal action against Uber unless the company halted its self-driving cars, reasserting the need to obtain a state permit before testing.

In the days following, it became clear that the DMV wasn’t the only agency not alerted to Uber’s plan.

“I was unaware the cars have been released in the wild,” San Francisco Police Department Traffic Company Sgt. Will Murray told the Examiner two days after Uber launched. “Isn’t that like the headless horsemen?”

“First comes the technology, then usually comes the policy,” SFPD spokesperson Giselle Talkoff mused.

The conversations around legality only grew as city supervisors waded into battle with the startup, and by Dec. 22, 2016, after a week of attacks from all sides, Uber gave up. It loaded its self-driving SUVs on the back of a truck, and shipped them off to Phoenix, where Arizona’s governor welcomed the tech company with open arms.

The city breathed a sigh of relief. And spat out a little acrimony.

“San Francisco generally sends all the things it doesn’t want to Arizona,” Supervisor Aaron Peskin told the Examiner. “We’ll see if the people of Phoenix want to be experimented on by Uber.”

A Boosted Board rolls up a hill in San Francisco. (Image: Boosted)

If Uber’s self-driving car conundrum were a singular occurrence, we would have forgotten about it by now. Instead, it joined a fleet of other instances where technology sped ahead of laws. But it hasn’t always been catastrophic, or as controversial.

While San Francisco sees many of the new tech apparatuses first, it’s Sacramento where the laws of the road get made. And sometimes, the process runs fairly smoothly, particularly when it entails updating laws instead of creating new ones.

In the early 2010s, electric-skateboard manufacturers were popping up all over California. Mountain View-based Boosted quickly dominated the market. In 2011, the company released a longboard with a simple black deck and signature orange wheels that, seven years later, can still be spotted on almost every block of Market Street during the morning commute. But it took other members of traffic a little while to catch up to the boards, which — unless you’re looking closely — can still be mistaken for simple foot-powered skateboards. Recognizing this, the company attempted pre-emptive damage control while they pitched AB 604, an update to a 1977 ban on motorized skateboards, which were often homemade, noisy, and gasoline-powered.   

“Pedestrians, cars, and bikes will pull out in front of you with alarming regularity!” Boosted stated in a 2012 blog post targeted at customers.

“People haven’t seen electric skateboard riders that often. They will assume you are walking or on an unpowered skateboard and expect you to be going much slower than you actually are. You need to take a defensive position and be ready to stop at a moment’s notice.”

The company also encouraged riders to be good ambassadors: “Your behavior on the road could ultimately determine whether laws in your area are overturned in our favor, or enacted to limit any use of electric skateboards. Every red light and stop sign you cruise through, someone sees it. Every pedestrian you have a close call with may be calling their representative. If you are riding in a dangerous way, you might be the one that ruins it for all of us!”

The call to consumers must have worked — although an outdated piece of legislation helped, too. In 2015, California’s Senate approved AB 604 by a 32-1 vote. The law allows people 16 and older who are wearing helmets to ride electric skateboards in California bike lanes, bike paths, sidewalks, trails, and roads — as long as the posted speed limit is under 35 mph.

The rules haven’t inhibited ridership; Boosted is worth millions, and continues to sell $1,500 boards to consumers.

(Courtesy Image)

Every year, in the weeks after Christmas, San Francisco’s parks fill with the buzzing, humming, and whirring of drones. From the $20, 4-inch-long FUQI pocket drone to a $1,000 DJI Mavic Pro Quadcopter, it’s a hobby with room for everyone. It’s also the highest-regulated but least-enforced form of technology in the city.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees air traffic control for Boeing 787s and the construction of any future spaceports, is also in charge of drones. The FAA inherited drone technology — officially called unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS — thanks to its jurisdiction over model airplanes, and it makes no effort to hide what a difficult industry it is to monitor.

“Because they are inherently different from manned aircraft, introducing UAS into the nation’s airspace is challenging for both the FAA and aviation community,” the agency’s website states. “UAS must be integrated into the busiest, most complex airspace in the world — one that is evolving from ground-based navigation aids to a GPS-based system.”

Luckily, unlike piloting a jet, flying a drone doesn’t require FAA approval. But whether you’re a hobbyist or a commercial cameraman, you have to adhere to the rules — both local and national. And this is where things get tricky. You are not allowed to fly drones within three nautical miles — which are a bit longer than standard miles — of major sports stadiums, starting from an hour before a game starts to an hour after it ends. This means that every time the Giants play, no one in SoMa can operate a drone.

National parks are also out of bounds, thanks to a German tourist who crashed his drone into a lake in Yosemite in 2014. That eliminates Ocean Beach, Baker Beach, Crissy Field, and anywhere else under the Golden Gate National Recreation Area’s jurisdiction.

But that law only applies to groundspace, not airspace. So, if you were to launch your drone from a backyard in the Sunset District, and fly over Great Highway to Ocean Beach, you wouldn’t technically be breaking the law.

Drone users are also not allowed to fly their machines within five miles of an airport, which leaves much of South San Francisco out of the picture — that is, unless you notify SFO that you’ll be doing so.

And the rule that trumps all others is about community safety: Under no circumstances, ever, must drones be flown over people. That means no Gay Pride Parade, no crowded Dolores Park, no Zeitgeist patio, no Golden Gate Bridge.

The complexity and contradictions of the rules are staggering, and yet the FAA leaves understanding them all up to users. “When you fly a drone in the United States, it is your responsibility to understand and abide by the rules,” it states on the front page of its drone information site.

This means that even commercial drone operators can get stuck on the legalities. Professional video producer Eddie Codel has been flying drones for four years and runs the Flying Robot International Film Festival, which screens at the Roxie each year. He knows more about drones than almost anyone in the city.

Yet it was only in June 2017, when Codel was hired to photograph the Asian Art Museum’s attempt to break the Guinness World Record for largest human flower, that the rules caught up to him. As people assembled in Civic Center, which is city property, he learned the Asian Art Museum would need to apply for a license from the San Francisco Film Commission to fly a drone overhead.

And the process is extensive. Pilots must fill out a form for film productions, release a detailed flight plan, show proof of insurance and a pilot’s license, and submit a drone registration certificate. In the end, the Asian Art Museum got it all done, but Codel doesn’t have faith it’s going to be used often.

“It’s really complicated,” he says. “I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of people abide by that unless it’s a high-end commercial shoot. If you’re just doing a video for something that’s not Hollywood — let’s say you’re a cafe, and you want a bird’s-eye shot for a website — you’re going to pay someone $500 at most for that, but it would take days of work to clear that with the city. It’s overkill.”

The numbers confirm Codel’s theory. In this fiscal year (which started July 1, 2017) the city’s Film Commission has approved 353 permits. Of those, only 10 have been for drones.

That low number may be due in part to the stacks of required paperwork, but also to the fact that enforcement of drone laws in San Francisco is almost nonexistent. The FAA doesn’t have the capacity to monitor every drone’s behavior, and cite those breaking rules. Neither does SFPD.

“I’ve never seen S.F. police go after people,” Codel says. “Most local cops would have no idea what the rules and regulations are.”

The only time users are truly at risk of getting tickets is in the national parks, whose rangers are known to cite people launching them off Ocean Beach. Other than that, if you don’t do anything too stupid while flying your drone, chances are no one will notice.

A Marble delivery robot is tested in the Mission District. (Image Marble)

Drone regulation is an ongoing challenge, but the local and national agencies have now had several years to get used to these machines. Other small technologies hitting San Francisco streets are so new that politicians have to take crash courses in understanding how they work, so they can form policies to control them.

The aptly named Curiosity Rover that NASA launched into space in 2011 bears a striking resemblance to Pixar’s lovable WALL-E. Its single eye is placed on what is easy to imagine as a head, connected by a neck-like pole to a boxy body, made mobile by six wheels that almost appear leg-like. Its mission is valiant — to explore the Gale Crater on Mars, and to send photos of its discoveries back to Earth.

In contrast, the squat boxy machines that started rolling along city sidewalks last summer looked like a caveman’s drawings of what NASA had produced. Coming in at around two feet in width, Marble’s robots took up a fair amount of space on Mission District sidewalks, as engineers with remote controls followed behind.

The machines are designed to be responsive to the world around them, dodging dogs, people in wheelchairs, and strollers. And they could be useful: The relentless idling of delivery cars in the bike lane outside Proposition Chicken on Market Street would, in theory, disappear if a fleet of robots picked up orders of hot wings and delivered them to doorsteps instead. Other brilliant ways delivery robots could help San Franciscans include picking up needles in the Tenderloin, taking medications to homebound seniors, or returning overdue books to the library.

But that technology is still a couple years out, at least. And in the meantime, there simply isn’t enough space in our cramped city for the new machines to share sidewalks with humans — particularly if they’re not bomb-proof enough to avoid kids in strollers 100 percent of the time.

Pedestrian safety group Walk San Francisco brought the issue to Supervisor Norman Yee, long an advocate of safe streets. He hopped on the task, talking with delivery robot manufacturers to see where a compromise could be reached.

“I really tried to work with the companies to say, ‘What can we do to manage this?’ But everything that came up as a potential solution wasn’t really a solution,” Yee tells SF Weekly.

Concerned that these robots would eventually injure someone, Yee drafted legislation severely limiting their activity. Testing must only be done in areas with low foot traffic. Delivery robots have to emit a warning noise for pedestrians, and observe rights-of-way. The also need headlights, and each permittee will need to furnish proof of liability insurance. No more than nine permits will be issued for delivery robot testing at any time, and only three devices can be tested per permittee.

It passed, unanimously. But it took Yee’s office months of negotiation to make it happen, and the piecemeal approach to creating laws for new technologies is, in itself, a problem.

“I know that new things are coming up, and I’d rather be proactive than reactive,” Yee says. “If we can predict that some of these things are coming, then we can talk to the companies and the industry and say, ‘If you’re using this new technology to do x, but it’s going to have some impact on y, can you make some adjustments?’ ”

Thinking ahead, Yee plans a resolution to create a task force that would oversee new technologies. The group, which could include members of advocacy organizations like Walk SF, professionals in the tech industry, and the City Administrator’s office, would study whether or not an office should be created to proactively assess new devices before they hit the streets.

“I don’t want to discourage technology,” Yee tells SF Weekly. “A lot of these could be very good for our society, but you have to think of what’s the best way to utilize them so they have less of a negative impact.”

In the end, it’s that balance that will mark technology’s success within society.

“Innovation goes two ways,” Yee says. “It’s not just about creating something and saying, ‘That’s innovation, and nothing else matters.’ If you want to be innovative, then try using innovations that are good to mankind, that don’t take away jobs, and don’t take away privacy. All I’m trying to do is stick to our values, get ahead of the curve, and understand that there are new things that come up that need to be addressed.”

These “new things” are already marching toward our streets. Byton, in Santa Clara, is developing a new enormous screen the width of a car dashboard. The SureFly drone is being designed to carry two people up to 70 miles. And a new motorcycle helmet is being built by Nuviz, complete with an internal video screen for a fully connected ride.

As voice controls, augmented reality, and emotion-responsive technology creeps into the market, the issue of how to regulate new devices is only going to get more complicated. But progress does not mean blindly moving forward. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it — which makes it all the more important to remember the time a Segway smashed into a marble wall.


Nuala Sawyer is SF Weekly’s news editor.
nsawyer@sfweekly.com |  @TheBestNuala

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