San Francisco Waymo arson sparks fresh debate on self-driving cars


Saturday’s destruction of the vehicle from Waymo, owned by Google's parent company Alphabet, followed an incident last week in which another Waymo car struck a bicyclist. — Reuters

SAN FRANCISCO: A seasoned San Francisco cab driver might have avoided the intersection of Jackson Street and Grant Avenue, in the heart of the city's Chinatown on the first day of Chinese New Year.

An autonomous Waymo robotaxi, by contrast, drove toward the cross streets on Saturday evening, when crowds were blocking all sides and revelers were lighting fireworks, according to two witnesses. Minutes later, some in the crowd attacked the car and set it on fire.

"Most normal car drivers know that they have to avoid Chinatown during the Lunar New Year holidays. The computer doesn't understand that," said Aaron Peskin, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, who has called for more regulation of self-driving cars.

The incident highlighted both the limited ability of robotic cars to make judgment calls and hostility to them for a host of reasons, such as concerns about safety, the jobs they might take from human drivers, and a more generalised fear of artificial-intelligence, according to officials and academics.

Others in San Francisco, where such vehicles have become commonplace, voice support for the cars as safer than human drivers.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed called the Chinatown Waymo incident a "dangerous and destructive act of vandalism" and praised the city's role as a testing ground for the development of self-driving cars.

"We are a city that is home to exciting, emerging technologies, like autonomous vehicles, that are changing the world," Breed said.

Saturday’s destruction of the vehicle from Waymo, owned by Google's parent company Alphabet, followed an incident last week in which another Waymo car struck a bicyclist. In October, a self-driving vehicle, made by GM-owned Cruise, hit and dragged a pedestrian 20 feet (6 meters). California subsequently suspended Cruise's driverless testing license.

Waymo did not respond to questions Monday on why its driverless car, a Jaguar I-PACE crossover fitted with a host of cameras and sensors, drove into the crowded public event.

Bryant Walker Smith, a professor at the University of South Carolina with expertise in autonomous-vehicle law, said the episode raises a fair question about whether self-driving cars can or should be able to detect areas crowded with pedestrians and navigate around them.

"I would be interested in hearing from Waymo about how its navigation accounts for these kinds of incidents," he said.

The company previously described the vandalism as an isolated case, but another Waymo rider told Reuters he rode in a Waymo the next day through another San Francisco crowd that shot fireworks at the car.

"Once they saw the Waymo, they started pointing directly at the Waymo instead of up in the sky," said Nathan Flurry, who recorded the scene. Flurry describes himself as a Waymo fan.

‘Not as sophisticated’

After the Saturday incident, Waymo videos proliferated on social media. One showed a fire truck, on the way to an emergency, temporarily caught behind a Waymo vehicle that failed to fully pull over and let it pass.

A fire department spokesperson confirmed the Waymo vehicle partially blocked the road.

San Francisco police are investigating Saturday's vandalism of the Waymo. The attackers' motivation remained unclear.

Some observers saw the incident as a sign of growing resentment toward self-driving cars and other AI technology.

"We are seeing people reaching a boiling point over tech that they do not want and does not make their lives better," said Missy Cummings, director of the George Mason University Autonomy and Robotics center and a former adviser to US traffic safety regulators.

Peskin, the city supervisor, said it may not have been an "anti-tech thing" but rather just criminal mischief by “a bunch of hoodlums”.

Just before the Waymo was attacked, the streets had been largely empty of cars as pedestrians flocked to the fireworks. Some vehicles turned around or backed up after seeing the crowds, according to a Reuters witness.

A few cars crept through the intersection periodically, as crowds parted to let them pass. The Waymo was attacked when it stopped as it approached the crowd, holding up a couple of cars behind it, said Michael Vandi, another witness.

Soon, the crowd turned ugly: “Someone in a white hoodie jumped on the hood of the car and literally, WWE-style, KO'd the windshield,” he said, making a professional-wrestling reference.

That set off a melee, with people covering the car in graffiti, breaking its windows and shooting fireworks into it.

California state Senator Dave Cortese, who is proposing legislation to give local governments more power to regulate self-driving cars, said the fact that the car drove into a crowded area during fireworks underscored the technology's shortcomings.

“What is becoming abundantly clear is that AV technology is not as sophisticated as the industry would like us to believe.” – Reuters

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