• Automated Vehicles
  • California

San Franciscans Aren’t Just Angry at Driverless Robotaxis, They’re Angry at Being Ignored

Jake Foose
Mar 08, 2024

Guidehouse Insights

On February 10, 2024, a Waymo driverless robotaxi was vandalized by a crowd in San Francisco, California, and ultimately destroyed when someone threw fireworks underneath the vehicle. Local police are investigating the incident. The subhead of a Reuters article described it as “the most destructive attack so far on driverless vehicles in the US.”

While destruction of property should not be condoned, San Franciscans’ outrage is warranted. As a primary testing ground for self-driving cars, the city has had the most visibility in terms of automated vehicle incidents, and this event is one in a long line of notable news stories about automation gone awry. In October 2023, a Cruise vehicle struck a pedestrian, and instead of stopping as a human driver might have, the vehicle kept moving, causing further harm. Cruise has been accused of hiding evidence about the incident, and the fallout caused its CEO to resign and its vehicles to be pulled from the roads of San Francisco as well as the company’s other test sites.

Just days before the February 10 attack, a Waymo vehicle struck a cyclist in the city. Locals have also voiced complaints about robotaxis causing traffic jams or blocking emergency vehicles. The promise of self-driving cars was to alleviate traffic and increase safety, but in many cases they have done the opposite.

These incidents have spurred protests as well as vigilantism. In addition to driverless vehicles being vandalized, there have been reports of people immobilizing the vehicles by placing cones on them, which confuses their sensors. San Francisco’s residents and government have repeatedly asked that the rollout of driverless vehicles be slowed down—and they have largely been ignored.

In August 2023, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), which regulates the automated vehicle space in the state, voted to allow Waymo and Cruise to operate robotaxi services at all hours of the day throughout San Francisco. The next week, San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu filed motions to halt the expansion of vehicle operations, with support from the city’s board of supervisors, transit authority, and fire department. Later, the City Attorney requested the CPUC revote on its August decision, and when that failed, a full lawsuit was filed.

Despite backlash against its decision, especially in the wake of the October 2023 Cruise incident, on March 1, 2024, the CPUC approved the expansion of Waymo’s robotaxi operations to San Francisco highways, some surrounding cities, and parts of Los Angeles. The announcement was met with criticism from officials and transportation agencies in Los Angeles and across the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as from members of the public.

Critics of self-driving cars are sometimes painted as regressives or fearmongers, but the overwhelming sentiment among San Francisco residents has been anger, not fear. The CPUC’s actions are at odds with the wishes of the people who will interact with these vehicles on a daily basis. Driverless cars are in an experimental phase, but in this experiment, the test subjects are not just the people who decide to ride in a robotaxi. Everyone around the vehicle—pedestrians, cyclists, people in other vehicles, and even residents awaiting emergency services—is a test subject too. Those people did not consent to being part of the experiment. You’d be angry too.