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A Crowd Attacked a Self-Driving Car and Set It on Fire. It’s Unlikely to Be the Last Time.

A crowd swarmed a Waymo self-driving car in San Francisco on Saturday night, pummeling the vehicle with cans, a skateboard, and eventually setting it on fire. 

Footage of the incident was captured and posted on social media by Michael Vandi, Chief Shipping Officer of cloud AI firm Addy AI. It’s a wild scene, emblematic of the ever-growing hostility between San Francisco residents and the big tech companies that use the city’s public streets as a testing ground for self-driving cars. 

The presence of self-driving cars in the city has been controversial. Last week, a Waymo vehicle struck a cyclist, leading to minor injuries and sparking a regulatory review. Waymo, which is owned by Google parent company Alphabet, said that the person was “occluded” by another vehicle. Other self-driving car incidents in San Francisco have been more severe. In October, a woman who was hit by a human-driven car fell into the path of a Cruise driverless vehicle which dragged her 20 feet. Cruise initially omitted this in its description of the incident to California’s DMV, prompting the agency to suspend the company’s license. 

There’s very few details about what led to this outpouring of public rage and the shocking images that resulted, but it’s hardly surprising. There have been numerous incidents of people attacking self-driving cars in recent years as they become more visible and the incidents where people are harmed stack up. In 2018, police in Arizona recorded 21 incidents where people attacked Waymo self-driving cars, including by slashing their tires. In 2022, also in Arizona, an angry pedestrian punctured the windshield, injuring the safety driver. Negative sentiment toward tech companies has been percolating in San Francisco specifically as their influence has become inescapable. In 2018, charter buses for workers at Google and Apple were vandalized with objects which may have been rocks or even pellet guns. 

Waymo told news outlets that nobody was in the vehicle, and that the car was set on fire after fireworks were discharged inside it. Motherboard reached out to Waymo for more details about the incident—we asked, for example, if the car was stalled and blocking traffic or if the gathering crowd prevented it from moving—and will update this story if we hear back.

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