Scenes of chaos in San Francisco’s Chinatown spread across social media on Sunday after a mob vandalized and set fire to a Waymo self-driving car using fireworks on Saturday night. Waymo, owned by Google parent company Alphabet, has been offering Californians a 24/7 taxi service in driverless vehicles since the summer.
“Waymo vehicle surrounded and then painted with graffiti,” San Francisco Fire Department saying on social media hours later. “Windows were broken and fireworks were lit inside the vehicle, ultimately setting the entire vehicle on fire.”
Photos uploaded by the fire department, which then remembered people that the use of fireworks is prohibited in San Francisco, showed the burning vehicle and later its charred remains.
The Waymo vehicle was surrounded and then painted with graffiti, windows were broken, and fireworks were set off inside the vehicle which ultimately set the entire vehicle on fire. #SFFD
Photos by Séraphine Hossenlopp pic.twitter.com/aOTqL3Rk8V
– SAN FRANCISCO FIRE DEPARTMENT MEDIA (@SFFDPIO) February 11, 2024
Police are investigating and as of Monday afternoon no arrests had been made, San Francisco Police Department spokeswoman Paulina Henderson told The Washington Post.
Officers responded to the fire around 8:50 p.m. local time, according to the police statement. When officers arrived, the unoccupied car was “engulfed in flames,” according to the statement, which added that there were no reports of injuries.
Mayor London Breed (D) warned that the fire could have been much worse for the surrounding area.
“Chinatown is one of the densest neighborhoods in San Francisco, and any fire could explode and spread through highly populated buildings, endangering lives, homes and businesses,” he said in a statement Monday afternoon.
Aaron Peskin (D), president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, told NBC News that the incident was “terrible” and “extremely dangerous.”
“People could have been hurt and, most importantly, it was the day of the Chinese Lunar New Year,” Peskin said. “This is one of the most important days for families, there were thousands and thousands of tourists here participating in the events.”
A Waymo spokesperson told Reuters that the car without passengers was traveling on a street in Chinatown when people surrounded it. Later, someone threw fireworks inside, starting the fire, the company said.
“The vehicle was not carrying any passengers and no injuries have been reported,” the company said.
Although self-driving cars have become commonplace on San Francisco’s winding, sloping streets, there are long-standing tensions between the city’s residents and the cars.
Still, driverless cars have rarely caught fire.
A Waymo vehicle struck a cyclist last week in the Potrero Hill neighborhood, causing minor injuries, The Verge reported. The Waymo passenger was uninjured and the cyclist left the scene at his expense.
Driverless vehicles have caused widespread concern in San Francisco by disrupting first responders on multiple occasions, including entering scenes cordoned off with caution tape and Hitting a fire truck responding to an emergency, The Post previously reported.
Last year, a robotaxi operated by Waymo rival Cruise hit a pedestrian and dragged her about 20 feet, after which the California Department of Motor Vehicles suspended its operations. Days later, the company said it would suspend all driverless operations in the country to examine its process and regain public trust.
In four videos uploaded by witness Michael Vandi, who runs Addy AI, an artificial intelligence company, a man using his jacket to cover his face can be seen doodling on the back of the car with what appears to be a marker. Others in the crowd appear unmasked. An unidentified voice encourages others to set the vehicle on fire.
The atmosphere just outside Hua Long Trading, a shop selling cigarettes, snacks and other daily items on Jackson Street, seems stuffy.
However, once the car is set on fire, people seem to move away from the vehicle. The Post was not able to access images of the moment the firecracker was thrown into the car.
Vandi said Reuters in a direct message on X, formerly Twitter, that people were celebrating the Lunar New Year on Saturday night by setting off fireworks. He said he saw one person jump on the hood of the vehicle and break the windshield, and then another person jumped on the hood as the crowd applauded. Vandi could not be reached for comment Monday morning.
“That’s when everything got WILD,” he wrote. “There were 2 groups of people. People who encourage him and others who were simply surprised and started filming. Nobody stood up; I mean, there was nothing you could do to face dozens of people.”