San Francisco’s Chinatown was the scene of an episode of extreme vandalism last night, marking a new chapter in the already tense relations between the city and automated vehicle companies. At around 9pm (local time) an individual jumped on the hood of a Waymo driverless taxi and shattered its windshield. The act was met with spontaneous applause among those present before quickly escalating. A crowd formed around the vehicle, covering it in spray paint, breaking the windows and finally setting it on fire. Despite the timely intervention of firefighters who arrived a few minutes later, the flames had already completely engulfed the car.
The causes 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 passengers” at the time of attack, during which fireworks were thrown into it sparking the flames. San Francisco Police Department public information officer Robert Rueca confirmed that law enforcement responded “at approximately 8:50 p.m. to find the car already in flames.” There were no reports of injuries.
A video posted by YouTube channel FriscoLive415 shows footage of Waymo’s electric Jaguar taxi – now charred wreckage – a symbol of growing tension between San Francisco residents and operators of automated vehicles. The suspension of operations of rival robotaxi Cruise by California Department of Motor Vehicles following an accident last year where one its vehicles hit and dragged a pedestrian has added fuel to this debate over safety and appropriateness these services in urban life.
Opposition from city officials and some residents towards 24/7 operation these cars has been ongoing – manifested through symbolic gestures such as placing orange cones on top of vehicles’ hoods. This incident fits into a broader context where technology companies face challenges deploying their devices in public spaces; historical precedents include destruction shared bicycles to episodes violence against electric vehicles and scooters.