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Sunday, February 25, 2024

Crowd Sets Waymo Self-Driving Car on Fire: ‘It Was So Torched… They Couldn’t Even Recognize the Vehicle’

A crowd in San Francisco vandalized a Waymo self-driving car with no passengers on Saturday night, breaking its windshield and setting it ablaze. Once firefighters got the situation under control, only a burned husk of the Waymo remained.

According to Waymo, the self-driving car was navigating through Chinatown at about 9 p.m. when it was suddenly surrounded by a crowd. Members of the crowd defaced the vehicle and threw a firecracker inside it, which set it on fire. The San Francisco Police Department said on Sunday that no injuries had been reported and that the cause of the fire was currently under investigation.

“We are working closely with local safety officials to respond to the situation,” a Waymo spokesperson told Gizmodo in an email on Sunday.

The incident occurred just days after a Waymo self-driving car hit a bicyclist in San Francisco. And last October, a GM autonomous Cruise vehicle dragged a pedestrian on the road for 20 feet (six meters). The incident led California to suspend the operation of Cruise robotaxis in the state out of safety concerns.

Michael Vandi, a former Amazon software engineer, was in Chinatown on Saturday—the day of the Lunar New Year—to watch the fireworks and saw the incident with the Waymo first-hand. He also recorded it and posted it to X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

Vandi told Gizmodo in a direct message that the Waymo was at a stop during a small traffic holdup when someone in a white hoodie “jumped on the hood of the car and literally WWE style K/O’ed the windshield & broke it.”

A photo of the Waymo car on fire in Chinatown on Feb. 10.

Photo: Séraphine Hossenlopp / San Francisco Fire Department

The crowd was shocked, Vandi said, and people started paying attention to what was happening and gathering around the car. At that moment, someone else jumped on the hood and a group of people started clapping and encouraging the behavior.

“That was when it went WILD. [There were] people with skateboards breaking the glass, and others graffitiing the car. There were 2 groups of people. Folks who encouraged it— and others who were just shocked and started filming,” the software engineer explained. “No one [made a move to stop them]—I mean, there wasn’t anything you could do to stand up to dozens of people.”

Vandi said he then saw someone light a firework under the car. Although nothing appeared to happen, the sound dispersed the crowd, including Vandi, who “didn’t want to be near it anymore.”

The software engineer said he wasn’t sure what happened next—he assumes that this is when the firework was lit inside the car—but he saw smoke for a few seconds and then “full on flames.” He left when he heard the sirens from the fire department getting closer.

Franky Francisco, a street reporter who runs the FriscoLive415 accounts on X and YouTube, was also in Chinatown watching the fireworks. As part of his work, he listens to the police dispatch and the emergency services radio scanner. When he was biking home, Francisco heard the fire department report that a self-driving car was engulfed in flames on the scanner and headed back.

Francisco didn’t witness the vandalization of the Waymo himself, arriving after the police and firefighters were on the scene. When he got there, he said the authorities were unsure what car they were looking at.

“It was so torched, they first said [it was a] Waymo, then they said Zoox, because they couldn’t recognize the vehicle,” Francisco said via direct messages. Waymo cars are made by Google while Zoox cars are made by Amazon. They look nothing alike.

Francisco said he wasn’t surprised at the Saturday incident with the Waymo car but stressed that “this one was the worst case of vandalism on an AV that I’ve seen.”

“There’s definitely a negative attitude towards self-driving cars that exists among some camps within the city,” Francisco said, pointing out that last August, people were furious when nearly a dozen Cruise robotaxis caused a traffic jam by simply stopping for no reason. “There is also the opposite type of energy that exists, it’s just not as loud and usually those folks are not destroying things.”

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