Waymo’s Silence on Taxi Torching Is Puzzling

Thom Weidlich 02.15.24


On the night of Saturday, Feb. 10, revelers in San Francisco’s Chinatown were ushering in the Lunar New Year. When an unoccupied Waymo robotaxi came to a halt in the middle of a street, it was lit on fire. The situation calls for some comment from the Alphabet-owned company, but it’s been mostly silent.

The bizarre incident has garnered attention and ink — people cheered and took pictures and video as the vehicle burned, apparently from a firecracker. The question is: Why was it torched? But it seems obvious: There’s a lot of built-up anger about self-driving cars in San Francisco. Interfering with the New Year celebration — it’s the Year of the Dragon, no less — doesn’t help.

This anger is why the silence of Waymo, sister company of Google and YouTube, is confounding.

Destroyed Vehicle

Obviously, we don’t condone vandalism, and it’s lucky no bystanders were hurt. Firefighters doused the flames of the now-destroyed vehicle. But crisis communications isn’t always about the rational. It may not be too much to say that Waymo should apologize for disrupting the festivities.

The anger is real. Jalopnik’s article on the incident begins, “Californians seem to have just about had it with self-driving cars.” It’s not unusual for the vehicles to abruptly halt in the street, known as “bricking.” In October, a Cruise robotaxi dragged a pedestrian for 20 feet, according to Gizmodo. Cruise, owned by General Motors, has since had its license revoked by California. Still, in December, San Francisco sued the state for allowing so many driverless cars on the streets.

And just days before the Chinatown torching, a Waymo vehicle struck a bicyclist, who was thankfully uninjured. The company didn’t say much about that one either.

Autonomous Automobile

As for the New Year’s event, witnesses said the autonomous automobile became confused by the crowds and even the fireworks. Couldn’t Waymo have programmed it to not go near the festivities? Why is it testing in a neighborhood with such narrow streets — and during a celebration?

We’ve seen little comment from Waymo, other than confirming it’s cooperating with investigators. Police and prosecutors are reportedly probing who set the car on fire. We suppose Waymo could press charges or sue. That would be a bad idea. It may have every legal right to do so, but reputationally it’s a mistake. Better to focus on improving its technology — and its community relations.

Photo Credit: Waymo

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