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Robotaxi vandalized, set ablaze in San Francisco’s Chinatown

Firefighters surround a scorched driverless car.
A Waymo driverless car was vandalized and set on fire in San Francisco’s Chinatown on Saturday night.
(Séraphine Hossenlopp / San Francisco Fire Department Media)
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A Waymo car went up in flames in San Francisco’s Chinatown after a crowd surrounded it, scrawled graffiti, smashed windows and then threw a firework inside the driverless vehicle in the middle of a crowded street Saturday night.

Nobody was in the car and no injuries were reported, police and company officials said.

The San Francisco Fire Department was called to the scene about 9 p.m. in the 700 block of Jackson Street, authorities said. Chinatown was bustling as people celebrated Lunar New Year.

Videos posted on social media by software engineer Michael Vandi show someone using a skateboard to crush the white Jaguar’s windows as the car’s rooftop sensors continued to turn. Another shot shows someone writing on the car’s side. The car was eventually engulfed in flames as spectators gathered around to record the scene with their phones.

The robotaxi was one of hundreds of the company’s fleet in San Francisco, said Waymo spokesperson Sandy Karp. “We are working closely with local safety officials to respond to the situation.”

The motive for the attack is unclear, and police say that the fire is under investigation.

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With robotaxis being tested in Los Angeles, Mayor Karen Bass called on the state to increase scrutiny of the driverless vehicles before fully permitting them. She points to problems with the cars in San Francisco.

Nov. 3, 2023

Tensions over driverless cars have risen since a driverless Cruise car, owned by General Motors, hit a woman in downtown San Francisco and pinned her underneath last fall, sending her to the hospital with serious injuries.

The incident eventually forced Cruise to suspend operations, while its competitor Google-owned Waymo has marched their expansion forward, recently arriving in Los Angeles to wary officials and worried taxi and truck drivers. A limited number of Waymo driverless cars are on Los Angeles streets, as the company offers test rides by invitation.

But Waymo has asked the California Public Utilities Commission for license to expand its fleet to be fully operational in Los Angeles.

Steam rises after a car fire is doused.
A Waymo driverless vehicle was vandalized and set on fire in downtown San Francisco on Saturday night.
(Séraphine Hossenlopp / San Francisco Fire Department Media)

Concerned the robotaxis could be dangerous, Mayor Karen Bass asked regulators in November to increase their scrutiny and said the city should have a say in how they are regulated.

At the time, she said one of the Waymo driverless cars operating in Los Angeles had failed to initially stop for a traffic officer at Beaudry Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard on Aug. 3, 2023. The officer had been signaling east- and westbound traffic to come to a stop.

There were no injuries reported.

Since then, union and local officials have been ratcheting up pressure on the company. Earlier this month, the the head of the city’s firefighters union appeared with other local officials on the steps of City Hall backing legislation introduced by California state Sen. Dave Cortese (D-San José) that would give local officials more control of autonomous vehicles.

Cortese said not only is he concerned about the vehicles’ ability to comply with local laws but also the threat they pose to workers.

“If we don’t learn to move quickly, with our laws, and in terms of protecting jobs with those laws, we’re going to end up with the greatest depression I think this country has ever seen,” he said during the conference.

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