In San Francisco’s Chinatown, a spontaneous act of vandalism has shaken the already tense relations between the city and automated vehicle companies. Yesterday, around 9pm (local time), an individual jumped onto the hood of a Waymo driverless taxi and smashed its windshield. The crowd quickly gathered around the vehicle, covering it in spray paint, breaking windows, and setting it on fire. Despite the intervention of firefighters who arrived a few minutes later, the car had already been completely engulfed in flames.
The motives behind this act of vandalism are still unclear at this time. Sandy Karp, a representative for Waymo, stated that the fully autonomous car was not carrying any passengers at the moment when fireworks were thrown into it to start the flames. San Francisco Police Department public information officer Robert Rueca confirmed that law enforcement responded at approximately 8:50 p.m., but there were no reports of injuries.
The incident occurred after months of heated debate over the safety and appropriateness of driverless vehicles in urban life. The suspension of operations for rival robotaxi Cruise by the California Department of Motor Vehicles following an accident involving one of its vehicles dragging a pedestrian last year has only added to tensions. Previous incidents where automated taxis have caused chaos by blocking traffic or colliding with fire engines have also contributed to this ongoing discussion about whether these services are appropriate in urban areas.
The opposition from city officials and some residents to the constant operation of these cars is evident through symbolic gestures such as placing orange cones on their hoods. This incident is just one example of how technology companies face challenges when deploying their devices in public spaces, which has historical precedents from destroying shared bicycles to instances of violence against electric vehicles and scooters. As San Francisco continues to grapple with these issues, it remains uncertain how long it will take for automated vehicles to become accepted as part of daily life in this vibrant city.