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Fireworks confused Waymo before San Francisco mob burned it

Peter Yu was wrapping up the work day at his dim sum restaurant Dick Lee Pastry Shop in Chinatown on Saturday night when he saw a Waymo robotaxi burst into flames right outside his front door.

"There were so many people on the street at the time," Yu said in Cantonese, showing a cellphone photo of the burning car taken at 9:03 p.m. "I called the police at 9:06 p.m."

The incineration of the autonomous vehicle marked a new level of confrontation between humans and robots on the streets of San Francisco. Activists have put orange traffic cones on the vehicles’ hoods to immobilize them. City officials, including the fire chief, have complained that the driverless cars impede first responders and are “not ready for prime time.” But never before have vandals so thoroughly destroyed one of the futuristic vehicles.

Peter Yu, owner of Dick Lee Pastry Shop, points to charred marks left by a Waymo autonomous vehicle that was set on fire outside of his Chinatown dim sum shop on Saturday. | Source: Jungho Kim for The Standard

Exactly what motivated the vandalism remains unclear, though witnesses said the corner where Waymo’s unoccupied Jaguar was burned to a crisp—Jackson Street and Grant Avenue—is regularly ground zero for fireworks and festivities marking the start of Lunar New Year. On Saturday, crowds had packed the streets in the area to celebrate the beginning of the Year of the Dragon. 

Yu said at the time, there was a long line of cars stuck on Jackson Street because of fireworks being set off at the corner. The Waymo car was about third or fourth in line. But while cars with human drivers were able to navigate away from the pyrotechnics, the self-driving car stopped alone on the street. People then started to vandalize the car, with one person eventually tossing a lit firework into the front passenger window, which set the interior quickly ablaze.

In a statement released Monday, Mayor London Breed characterized the incident as a “destructive act of vandalism” that risked surrounding lives, homes and businesses. 

As of Monday, no arrests had been announced in the incident, though Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who represents Chinatown, said the police department has told him it has good video footage of the incident and that the department’s arson and special investigations units are heading up the investigation. The department said it had no reports of injuries from the vandalism or fire.

Small fragments of the Waymo robotaxi that was set ablaze by a mob littered Jackson Street in the center of Chinatown on Monday. | Source: Jungho Kim for The Standard

The United States Attorney's Office for the Northern District of California tweeted a segment of federal law that laid out the potential penalties for destroying a vehicle using fire or an explosive. The minimum jail sentence if no personal injury results from the action is five years in prison, according to the statute.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Abraham Simmons said Monday that "at this time, we cannot confirm the existence (or non-existence) of an investigation in this office into the incident."

Another nearby business owner, who declined to be named, said she was minding her store when the fire started. She went outside to see what was happening before the police arrived and blocked off the whole street.

Both she and Yu agreed that during the peak of the Lunar New Year celebrations, the city should deploy traffic enforcement in Chinatown to redirect cars away from Jackson and Grant.

‘It didn’t come out of nowhere’  

Waymo spokesperson Sandy Karp told The Standard that the vehicle was "navigating," or departing after dropping off a passenger, and had turned onto Jackson when it encountered a pop-up street fair. While it was driving through or past the pop-up alongside other human drivers, a crowd of people rushed it.

The exact timeline of events remains in dispute. According to SFPD, officers responded to the 700 block of Jackson St. at approximately 8:50 p.m. and found the Waymo engulfed in flames. 

However, San Francisco Fire Department spokesperson Lt. Mariano Elias said firefighters responded to the scene at 9:03 p.m. and learned that a group of 10 people had surrounded the car, tagging it with graffiti and breaking its windows before setting off a firework inside the Jaguar.

A vehicle posted by Twitter user World Peace Movement shows a member of the crowd tossing a firework into the vehicle’s front passenger seat via the broken passenger window. Within seconds, flames are visible in the front seat of the car.

Safe Street Rebel, an activist organization that made headlines for placing traffic cones on the hoods of robotaxis last year to impede their progress, said the attack on the Waymo was “not a Safe Street Rebel action.” 

However, the organization added that it “does speak to popular sentiment towards these dangerous and unneeded contraptions.”

Charred marks could still be seen Monday on Jackson Street where a Waymo autonomous vehicle was set on fire during Lunar New Year celebrations on Saturday. | Source: Jungho Kim for The Standard

“People are frustrated with them having unfettered access to our streets and the issues that come with that like invasive surveillance technology,” the organization wrote in a direct message to The Standard. “We can't speak to why this particular incident happened but it didn't come out of nowhere.”

Billy Riggs, the director of the University of San Francisco’s Autonomous Vehicles and the City Initiative, called the attack an example of “sheer urban violence.” 

“When I look at this, it’s less a targeted attack on Waymo and more just a partying mob that’s completely out of control,” Riggs said. 

By and large, however, Riggs said he is not greatly concerned about passenger safety in such situations because of the ability of customer service representatives to quickly contact riders and connect with police and fire department dispatchers. 

The onboard data and footage gathered by vehicle sensors and cameras can be used to prosecute the suspected vandals, he said. Although Waymo is limited in the amount of data it can receive via a wireless transfer over the air, Riggs said data could possibly still be collected physically from what remains of the vehicle. 

“I’ve read enough about forensic data acquisition that even a charred disk can still have data extracted,” Riggs said. 

Since Cruise pulled its entire fleet of robotaxis off the road last fall following an incident where one of its vehicles dragged a woman under its chassis, Waymo has been the only company permitted to offer paid, driverless rides in San Francisco. The company, which is owned by Google parent Alphabet, currently also operates in Phoenix and is seeking to expand its operations in the Bay Area as well as Los Angeles and Austin.

Alain Kornhauser, an operations research and financial engineering professor at Princeton University, said he still believes in the ability of autonomous vehicles to provide affordable transportation access to those in need of it. But, he said, the footage of the destruction was sobering. 

“One has to look back and say, ‘How did we get to this?’” Kornhauser said. “If it was me, I would ask what is it that I’m doing that is perceived to be so unappreciated.”


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