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Video: Crowd lights Waymo driverless vehicle on fire in San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO (KRON) — Igniting a Waymo vehicle with fireworks was not part of San Francisco’s planned Lunar New Year events in Chinatown kicking off the Year of the Dragon.

But that’s what happened when a rowdy and rebellious crowd surrounded the autonomous vehicle on Jackson Street at 9 p.m. Saturday. The crowd first began attacking the Waymo car by breaking out the windows and spraying graffiti on it. Then, someone threw fireworks inside and ignited the explosives before the high-tech car went up in flames, according to witnesses and videos posted on social media.

Fireworks explode inside a Waymo car on Feb. 10, 2024 in San Francisco’s Chinatown. (Image courtesy Anirudh Koul)

People in the crowd cheered and posed for photographs next to the destruction. There were no passengers riding in the AV at the time.

On Monday morning, a spokesperson for the San Francisco Police Department declined to say whether anyone has been identified or arrested behind the Chinatown Waymo blaze. SFPD did not answer KRON’s questions about a possible motive behind the melee.

(Image courtesy Anirudh Koul)

A Waymo company spokesperson said its fully autonomous vehicle was on its way to pick up passengers and was “navigating on Jackson Street,” when a crowd surrounded and vandalized the vehicle.

Multiple witnesses said Waymo’s navigation technology became confused by festivities and fireworks that were lit to celebrate the Lunar New Year. Witness Anirudh Koul said the driverless car “got stuck immediately in front.”

Another witness said the car’s presence in the middle of Chinatown’s celebrations triggered frustrations in the crowd. “You could feel the frustration when people were just trying to celebrate,” she told KRON.

Frustrations boiled over into destructive human behavior targeting the machine.

Many people in the crowd recorded the fiery spectacle with cellphone cameras. (Image courtesy Anirudh Koul)

Firefighters eventually doused the very expensive blaze, and no injuries were reported.

Koul wrote, “Hopefully, with all the public footage, the vandals will be apprehended.”

Mayor London Breed said the crowd’s actions could have endangered lives.

“It was a dangerous and destructive act of vandalism. Chinatown is one of the densest neighborhoods in San Francisco, and any fire could explode and spread among tightly-packed buildings to endanger lives, homes, and businesses,” Breed wrote.

AVs have a history in San Francisco of stalling, also known as “bricking,” during festivals. During last summer’s Outside Lands music festival, at least six driverless Cruise cars bricked in the middle of the street. At the time, a Cruise company spokesperson said the cars stopped because of “wireless connectivity issues” caused by Outside Lands.

Cruise, a robotaxi service owned by General Motors, had its license taken away by the DMV last year after after investigators determined its technology posed “an unreasonable risk to public safety.”

Waymo autonomous vehicles are parked in a staging area on June 8, 2023 in San Francisco. (Photo by Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

While Cruise is sidelined in San Francisco, Waymo is continuing to give rides throughout the city. Waymo, which began as a secret project within Google more than a decade ago, was not impacted by the DMV’s actions against Cruise.

Mayor Breed continued voicing her support for AV technology on Monday, saying that San Francisco is the birthplace of technology advancements “that are changing the world,” she wrote.

Breed described the Lunar New Year Waymo fire as an “isolated incident.”

A crowd gathers around the blazing Waymo car on Feb. 10, 2024. (Image by Michael Vandi)

“Saturday was a beautiful day in San Francisco. During the first day of the Lunar New Year, our Chinatown community was packed with thousands of people out in the streets and celebrations everywhere. We are not defined by a small, isolated incident by a reckless few,” the mayor wrote.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California posted a warning on its X page about criminal consequences for the offenders. “Whoever maliciously damages or destroys … by means of fire or explosive … any building, vehicle, or other real or personal property used in interstate or foreign commerce … shall be imprisoned for not less than 5 years and not more than 20 years,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office wrote.

Anyone with information on the Lunar New Year Waymo fire is asked to call SFPD at 415-575-4444.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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