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Angry mobs are torching self-driving taxis in the US. Why are they so angry with autonomous cars and will Aussies react the same way when Waymo and Cruise arrive here? | Opinion

In San Francisco in February this year a crowd surrounded a Waymo self driving taxi and set it on fire.

The backlash against autonomous cars in the United States has taken a worrying turn with a mob in San Francisco surrounded a self-driving taxi and set it on fire last week.

It's the latest, but worst, in a series of attacks on the so-called robotaxis currently operating in the US.

So, why are people so angry about a technology thats's designed to make life easier? And would Australians react in the same way if the tech came here?

Thankfully, there weren't any passengers in the self-driving taxi that the mob destroyed. You can see in the videos on social media the San Francisco fire department hosing down the smouldering wreck of the electric Jaguar I-Pace belonging to autonomous ride-hailing company Waymo.

"The vehicle was not transporting any riders and no injuries have been reported," Waymo said. "We are working closely with local safety officials to respond to the situation."

Waymo is owned by Google's parent company Alphabet and currently operates driverless taxis in Los Angeles, Austin and Phoenix, along with San Francisco.

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There are several other autonomous taxi services running through the US including Zoox (a subsidiary of Amazon), Motional (a joint venture with Hyundai) Nuro and AutoX. But it's General Motors' Cruise that's Waymo's biggest rival.

Both Waymo and Cruise use fully electric SUVs for their self-driving vehicles.

In Waymo's case it's a Jaguar I-Pace and as Cruise is owned by General Motors it uses the Bolt, which isn't sold in Australia.

Both cars are heavily modified with a multitude of sensors including radar, lidar and cameras. They are way more advanced and capable than any production model that can be bought privately.

Both Waymo and Cruise use fully electric SUVs for their self-driving vehicles. In Waymo’s case it’s a Jaguar I-Pace.

Cruise and Waymo first began testing in the US in 2017 before being granted licences to operate in California and Texas. Both companies have invested billions of dollars into developing their autonomous technology that has some massive challenges to overcome, but you might be surprised by how well it works.

San Francisco, for example, with its ridiculously hilly terrain and plenty of maze-like streets, would seem like an impossible city for a car to autonomously find its way around safely, but in most cases they can.

Problem is that self-driving taxis can get 'confused' by traffic situations, map errors, road works, software glitches and hardware issues like having their sensors obstructed.

When they do the safety default is to stop and sometimes that can be in the middle of an intersection. They'll stay there until the car thinks through its dilemma and goes on its merry way again or an operator from the ride-hail company takes control remotely and moves the car.

As Cruise is owned by General Motors it uses the Bolt, which isn’t sold in Australia.

Passengers inside a self-driving taxi that has stopped have very limited options. They can't climb into the driver's seat and steer the car to safety. All they can do is wait, call the helpline, or get out of the car.

There have been plenty of minor hiccups, some of them amusing, such as last year in Phoenix when 12 Waymos all turned up in the same street at the same time and caused a traffic jam.

Cruise also had the same issue in San Francisco last year when 10 self-driving taxis all decided to meet at the one intersection and then couldn't move because they were all in each other's way.

There was also a case in 2023 when a Cruise in San Francisco drove straight into wet concrete, and another where a Waymo got lost in a construction site.

More seriously, emergency services are becoming increasingly frustrated with the self-driving taxis, too, which occasionally block their way.

More seriously, emergency services are becoming increasingly frustrated with the self-driving taxis, too, which occasionally block their way.

And even as I write this in February 2024, Waymo has just issued a recall of its autonomous software after two of its cars rammed the same truck just minutes apart in Arizona. It was a tow truck towing a pick-up truck from behind.

There have also been terrible incidents. In 2023 a self-driving taxi operated by Cruise was involved in a serious accident involving a pedestrian in San Francisco.

According to the police report the pedestrian was struck by a separate car first, but was then thrown into the path of the Cruise taxi which dragged the person some distance before stopping. The individual survived but with serious injuries.

There was also a case in 2023 when a Cruise in San Francisco drove straight into wet concrete. (image credit: @Name_Is_Nobody)

The Californian government suspended Cruise's licence and the company has put operations temporarily on hold as it restructures the business and reviews safety.

Incidents like this one do nothing for the public's trust and acceptance of autonomous cars, but even before this, the reaction towards self-driving taxis has been hostile.

As early as 2018 Waymo and Cruise reported its autonomous cars were under attack. And you name it, the Waymo and Cruise cars have copped it. From having their tyres slashed by people wielding knives to having rocks thrown at them.

At the start of testing when it was mandatory for an operator to sit in the driver's seat, the employees were even threatened by members of the public, with some having guns pointed at them.

Last year in Phoenix 12 Waymos all turned up in the same street at the same time and caused a traffic jam. (image credit: via Reddit (/u/seansinha))

Accounts from people online talk about how they enjoy "braking hard" while driving in front of self-driving taxis vehicles just to see if it could react fast enough.

The random attacks have become more organised over time with organisations like the Safe Street Rebel Group in San Francisco encouraging the disruption of the Waymo and Cruise network. The group has videos on social media showing how to immobilise a self-driving taxi using just a traffic cone.

The videos show activists placing a traffic cone onto the bonnet of the self-driving car which seems to 'paralyse' them as the sensors try to comprehend the situation.

Safe Street Rebel Group argues the cars are at worst dangerous or at least an unnecessary hindrance to traffic.

The emotion is strong, however. Strong enough to move people to sabotage or even violently attack a machine whose job is to help them.



Why do they feel this way? Is it fear? Would they behave this way to a human driver? Is it borne out of having their autonomy to drive taken away and given to autonomous cars? Is that it? Or is it there something specific about American society?

When the first motor cars began bumbling their way through American streets in the late 1890s the drivers reported being laughed at or told that their unreliable, dangerous, gasoline-powered carriage was a novelty and it would never replace a horse.

The US then went on to become an automotive powerhouse that led the world.

Perhaps then, like the reaction to the first motor cars, this is just a distrust and fear of new technology.

Maybe there's an underlying social unrest that exists. You know, seeing their own country so full of problems that need to be addressed, but being told these electric self-driving cars will make life better.

Problem is that self-driving taxis can get ‘confused’ by traffic situations, map errors, road works, software glitches and hardware issues. (image credit: KTVU)

Are self-driving taxis just punching bags for people who are angry with everything?

And would Australians react in the same way when the first self-driving taxis come here? I like to think we won't, but given the high level of road rage that already exists all over the country people are likely to take out their frustration on a Waymo or Cruise when they come here.

Maybe the way to cool the anger is always to assume there are passengers inside.

Australian regulations do not allow private vehicles to drive fully autonomously - yet. Testing is being carried out by manufacturers in Australia but until the Automated Vehicle Safety law comes in 2026, self-driving taxis will not be allowed to operate.

Even then the unique challenges of Australian roads, terrain and wildlife will mean years of testing is ahead of us by companies such as Waymo and Cruise to ensure the technology is safe.

Richard Berry
Senior Journalist
Richard had wanted to be an astrophysicist since he was a small child. He was so determined that he made it through two years of a physics degree, despite zero...
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