subscribe Support our award-winning journalism. The Premium package (digital only) is R30 for the first month and thereafter you pay R129 p/m now ad-free for all subscribers.
Subscribe now

A crowd vandalised and set fire to a Waymo self-driving car using a firework in San Francisco on Saturday, the Alphabet-owned company and authorities said, marking the most destructive attack so far on driverless vehicles in the US.

On Saturday night, a crowd surrounded a white sport utility vehicle (SUV) travelling in a street in the city’s Chinatown district, a company spokesperson said.

Michael Vandi, a witness who posted videos of the incident, said people were celebrating China’s Lunar New Year by setting off fireworks. A person jumped onto the hood of the Waymo vehicle and broke its windshield. Another person also jumped on the hood 30 seconds later as some in the crowd clapped in approval, he said.

“That was when it went wild,” he wrote, describing people with skateboards breaking the glass and others writing graffiti on the car.

“There were two groups of people. Folks who encouraged it and others who were shocked and started filming. No-one stood up. There wasn’t anything you could do to stand up to dozens of people.”

His video showed the vehicle engulfed in flames.

Waymo said someone threw a firework inside, which set the vehicle on fire. The fire department posted pictures on social media of the charred remains of the car and said a firework started the blaze.

“The vehicle was not transporting any riders and no injuries have been reported. We are working closely with local safety officials to respond to the situation,” the company said. It did not say what caused the attack.

The San Francisco police department said it was investigating the cause of the fire and did not say whether arrests have been made. The electric car, a Jaguar I-Pace, is equipped with 29 cameras and other sensors.

The latest incident came a day before the Super Bowl NFL championship involving the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs.

“This was a one-off event,” the Waymo spokesperson told Reuters, adding it would “continue serving riders during today’s festivities”.

The incident was not the first time people have harassed self-driving cars, but its severity may illustrate growing public hostility following a pedestrian dragging accident in 2023 involving a vehicle operated by General Motors’ Cruise unit.

On previous occasions in San Francisco and Phoenix, Arizona, groups have disrupted the operations of self-driving vehicles, blocking their path, trying to enter the vehicles and jumping on their bonnets. Videos that went viral showed people putting orange traffic cones on top of vehicles to obstruct their sensors and force them to stop abruptly.

Last week, a driverless Waymo car collided with a cyclist in San Francisco, causing minor injuries. The incident is being reviewed by the state's auto regulator.

Waymo offers driverless ride-hailing service in Phoenix and is working to expand the service to Los Angeles and Austin, Texas.

On October 2, a pedestrian hit by another vehicle was thrown into the path of a self-driving Cruise vehicle and dragged 6m. California subsequently suspended the company's driverless testing licence, and Cruise pulled all its US self-driving vehicles from testing.

Completely driverless test vehicles, mostly from Cruise and Waymo fleets, travelled nearly 5.3-million kilometres in California in 2023.


subscribe Support our award-winning journalism. The Premium package (digital only) is R30 for the first month and thereafter you pay R129 p/m now ad-free for all subscribers.
Subscribe now

Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.