In a disturbing scene, a crowd in San Francisco surrounded an empty Waymo Robotaxi the evening of Feb 11, then began vandalizing it and breaking its windows. At some point, the vehicle was set on fire. San Francisco Fire attended to it but the vehicle is presumably destroyed.
Video posted on X shows 4 portions of the scene, on Jackson St. near Grant in San Francisco’s original Chinatown, crowded because of the Lunar New Year, and the upcoming Superbowl game which includes the San Francisco 49ers. Violence in crowds around such events is far from unknown, but this escalates previously mild attempts at violence and vandalism with other robotaxis. It is unclear if it is an escalation of such sentiment, or just a random event.
There is mild irony that the San Francisco Fire Dept. have been enemies of Waymo of late, complaining that they have interfered with their fire operations. At the same time, the department released a video to explain how cars should drive when a fire truck appears on a call, and it used a Waymo as the example of doing the right thing.
The attackers are not masked, and many of their faces show clearly in the posted videos. Many others are shown making videos, which could collect a large amount of evidence if Waymo wishes to press charges on those involved in destroying its very expensive vehicle.
In addition, an array of cameras and LIDARs in the vehicle are recording the entire thing from every angle. Some of those videos would have been transmitted up as the events took place. Others would be stored on drives in the vehicle which may have been destroyed by the fire or may have survived it. It is unknown if Waymo’s log drives are in a fire protective environment.
If Waymo wishes to pursue this, it may have more data than was recorded by the vehicle (and the data from phones and security cameras on the street.) Other Waymo cars on the street may have also recorded elements of this scene. In addition, given the volume of vehicles, they almost surely recorded other video of the perpetrators as they walked to and from this riot. One person who breaks the windows of the vehicle is wearing a hoodie, and while there are shots of his face, things are not clear. However, the hoodie is distinctive, and if this person walked past another Waymo (or of course the thousands of security cameras on various private buildings on the streets) it may be that superior video of the suspect’s face may have been recorded.
As noted, in any situation like this, many private security cameras are making recordings and police are known to request these videos. What makes it unusual for Waymo is that they own a vast network of cameras on wheels, which they could in theory apply to such a problem.
They might well be wary of doing so. Waymo should not want their cars to be a general surveillance tool for police at all times. There is a difference between a company using it’s own cameras to produce evidence on a crime against the company and allowing general police use. Recently, Ring cameras decided it would no longer let police put in requests to Ring-owning homeowners for their footage, in order to limit the grown of a surveillance state.
For Waymo itself, there will be temptation. It’s of value to them not just to catch the perpetrators of this attack, but to create a deterrent against future attack. While it is possible to wear masks and other clothing to make things harder, Waymo would find value in people being very wary of attacking their vehicles.
Many in the crowd do not engage in violence, but those who do seem very clear on the video. The crowds will get more raucous tomorrow, particularly after the Superbowl. Waymo may be wise, at least for now, to reduce service in the city during that period.