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Why Phoenix Area Residents Are Attacking Waymo's Self-Driving Fleet


They're getting their tires slashed, pelted with rocks and run off the road. They are the fleet of self-driving vans from the company Waymo. It's been testing out the vehicles in the suburbs of Phoenix since 2016. Ryan Randazzo reports for The Arizona Republic. He joins us now from member station KJZZ. Welcome to the program.


CORNISH: So these cars are tested in the community of Chandler. And I understand that police have documented more than 20 incidents in the last two years. So what are the other kinds of attacks that are happening on these self-driving vans?

RANDAZZO: Well, the worst would be when a man aimed a gun at one as it drove past his driveway. And he was actually arrested. And they reached a settlement in that case. But, yeah, the slashed tire was striking. The car was actually in traffic stopped, and someone ran from a park and slashed its tire. And then, you know, being run off the road - there was one jeep that ran the self-driving cars off the road at least six times.

CORNISH: And we should note an employee rides in the back of the vehicle. So there's a human backup driver who's onboard.

RANDAZZO: Almost always to take control when needed, and that happened in all these instances. So the jeep would slam on the brakes or run headlong towards the Waymo. And the safety driver would then have to take manual control, which actually creates a pretty dangerous situation because you're handing off control of the vehicle from the robot to the human. And that handoff can be pretty dangerous.

CORNISH: A person quoted in your story said that everyone hates the Waymo drivers because they think that they're dangerous. Is that something that is a kind of common sentiment?

RANDAZZO: Well, I think it's important to note that in almost all of these instances it wasn't the typical kind of road rage that is triggered by an event on the road where someone - you know, a Waymo accidentally cut someone off or took too long to make a turn. These events aren't triggered by mistakes on the roadway or the the way the cars are driving. This is more of a general angst that some people have towards the technology being tested in their community.

CORNISH: When you say anger, do you mean the idea of just the autonomous vehicle? Is it the concern about people being harmed? Obviously there was an incident where a self-driving car killed a pedestrian.

RANDAZZO: Some of these do predate that fatal accident that occurred here. But some of them have certainly occurred since then. And that was another company. It was a vehicle operated by Uber. That definitely changed the tone of the conversation around self-driving cars in Arizona and nationally. And some people, including the man who aimed the gun, reference that accident.

But in other instances, people haven't been as aggressive as to try and run the cars off the road, but they just call the police when they see them in their neighborhood because they just are bothered by this technology circling their homes. They might have privacy concerns because there's cameras on these things.

And these things park for a long time and get new instructions on where to go. So they're often parked in front of people's homes. And people just seem very uncomfortable with this level of technology being tested on their streets.

CORNISH: What's been the response from Waymo?

RANDAZZO: I don't think Waymo is very excited about people throwing rocks at their vehicles or running them off the road. They've really tried to keep this low-key because they're launching a ride-share service. And it's not very good publicity. I mean, who wants to hire one of these cars to drive them somewhere if there's a threat that people are going to try and run you off the road?

CORNISH: Do you think this does reflect a shift in how people think about self-driving cars? Or is this really about one community that's kind of fed up?

RANDAZZO: I think there certainly is a contingent of folks who don't like the idea of robots sharing the roadways with them and maybe taking jobs away from other drivers. I think some people just don't like the idea of what this kind of technology represents for the future.

CORNISH: Arizona Republic reporter Ryan Randazzo, thank you for speaking with us.

RANDAZZO: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.