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Robotaxi burning puts both police and Waymo in the hot seat 

Prosecuting the suspected arsonist may be a win for law and order in San Francisco. But some say it may bring unwanted publicity to Waymo.

A smoking car hulk beside fire fighters.
San Francisco Fire Department firefighters extinguish a Waymo self-driving car that was set ablaze during Lunar New Year celebrations in Chinatown on Saturday. | Source: Courtesy Clara Jeffery

The stakes are high for both the San Francisco police and Waymo after a crowd torched one of the company’s driverless robotaxis in Chinatown. 

Police are under pressure to quickly investigate and solve the crime, images of which spread widely online and played into a narrative of the city being lawless. Mayor London Breed has called the vandalism “dangerous and destructive” and vowed, “We will work to hold those who committed it accountable.”

Police Chief Bill Scott told the Police Commission Wednesday night the department has already collected “some very good videos” in its investigation and he expects the department will ask Waymo for video from the vehicle—but wasn’t sure if investigators had yet.

“I do not think that this is an example of Battlestar Galactica or Terminator and people turning on robots.”

Sam Singer

Waymo said it’s cooperating with police but did not respond to questions about whether that included sharing video, audio and other evidence from its vehicle. 

“We are fully cooperating and assisting SFPD in their investigation of the vandalization and burning of one of our vehicles,” Sandy Karp, a spokesperson for Waymo, said. 

Although the robotaxi was unoccupied when it was attacked by a crowd and no one was hurt, some members of the public have questioned the safety of a vehicle that stalls in traffic and can be so quickly engulfed in flames. Public relations experts and defense attorneys say if police can find and arrest the suspect who was seen on social media videos throwing a firework into the robotaxi, it would be a win for law enforcement—but a highly public trial could nevertheless put the company in an awkward situation. 

Saturday’s attack on the robotaxi comes after months of negative publicity for Waymo’s chief competitor, Cruise, and broader concerns from San Francisco public safety officials, including the fire chief and the city attorney, that the vehicles pose hazards on city streets. 

Cruise, which is owned by General Motors, pulled its cars off the road and fired top executives after one of its robotaxis dragged a pedestrian in San Francisco and the company was accused of failing to share information with state regulators in a timely fashion. 

Cars are always recording

Waymo and San Francisco police have cooperated before.

The department has used video from Waymo on past investigations, according to police guidelines on the vehicles, which note they are continuously recording as they move through the city. 

“Those cars have all kinds of video on them, so they’re gonna have images of the suspect,” said a former high-ranking San Francisco police officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The company says that its vehicles collect video inside and outside of the cars, as well as audio, but cautions that the “systems are not designed to use this data to identify individual people.”

A Waymo robotaxi burns after a crowd in San Francisco's Chinatown broke its windows and threw fireworks into the car. | Source: Courtesy @michael_vandi on

The company could voluntarily hand such data over to investigators, or, another former officer said, the department could be forced to subpoena evidence from the company. But in the past, large companies have resisted providing material requested in a subpoena. Alphabet, the parent company of Google, owns Waymo.

Investigators from the San Francisco Fire Department are typically tasked with heading up the technical parts of an arson investigation. 

But in this case, a spokesperson for the fire department said San Francisco police are investigating alone. 

The police investigators usually focus on the criminal investigation, which will entail trying to identify suspects through surveillance footage, social media and witnesses, said a second former high-ranking San Francisco police officer who spoke on the condition they not be named because they are not directly involved with this case and did not want to influence it. 

San Francisco police are banned from using facial recognition technology, so the department can’t use it to identify suspects. However, once images of suspects have been identified, the former officer said, the department typically sends those images to other law enforcement agencies in the hopes that they can be identified. 

A firefighter hoses down a charred car wreck at night, with onlookers behind barriers.
The charred remains of a Waymo robotaxi smolder in Chinatown after it was defaced with graffiti and set afire with fireworks on Saturday. | Source: Courtesy SFFD via Séraphine Hossenlopp

Police only need a picture of someone breaking the law at the scene to make an arrest on probable cause. Once in custody, a suspect would be questioned, and police would seek to gather corroborating evidence such as other videos and witnesses.  

A prosecution, however, is another matter. The second former high-ranking San Francisco police officer and a prominent defense attorney said Waymo may determine it’s in its best interest for the case to quietly disappear. The company may have concerns that a trial could put trade secrets out into the open, or simply fuel further debate about whether robotaxis are a danger to the public.   

If Waymo asked the District Attorney’s Office not to proceed with a case, that could carry some weight, the second former officer said. 

It’s up to the “DA to really then ask Waymo what they want to do.” 

Waymo’s dilemma

An arson case against those who set upon the Waymo car in Chinatown has the potential to generate months of negative publicity for the company, several defense attorneys said, even though Waymo was the “victim” in the incident.

Longtime Bay Area defense attorney Paula Canny said if she were Waymo’s CEO, she “wouldn’t want to put any more attention on why it was done. And why it was done is that driverless cars are maybe not a good thing.” 

A woman speaks to reporters.
Attorney Paula Canny speaks to the media in May 2023 about her then-client Nima Momeni, who was charged with murder in the killing of Cash App founder Bob Lee. Canny shortly thereafter stopped representing Momeni. | Source: Paul Kuroda for The Standard

That being said, Canny said if she were defending anyone charged with igniting the car, she would pursue a strategy of putting driverless cars and regulators on trial. 

“I would put the government on trial for even allowing driverless Waymos to drive around,” she said.

Veteran defense attorney John Philipsborn was more measured, saying trying to put Waymo on trial instead of the accused arsonist might only go so far in building a defense. 

Believing that technology is dangerous, he said, “isn’t necessarily a justification for a property crime.” 

Defendants in property crime cases against big companies often attempt to build sympathy by pointing to things such as corporate greed or negative impacts on the environment, but such rhetoric often has little to do with the law, Philipsborn said. 

San Francisco State engineering Professor William Riggs, who closely follows the autonomous vehicle industry, said that while some media accounts have framed the vandalism as an attack on tech, “I don’t think it’s an assault on big tech.”

A driverless car is seen reflected in a car rearview window.
A driverless Waymo car drives up La Playa Street in San Francisco in July 2023. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

That being said, Riggs added, “If I was Waymo, I might not want to ruin these kids’ lives. That’s not gonna do anybody any good.”

Conversely, crisis management consultant Sam Singer said a case could actually give the company a platform to defend its technology.

“I think this is potentially a turning point for Waymo to use this case of destruction and violence to generate understanding and sympathy for technology companies,” Singer said. 

By framing the debate around sympathy for robots, Singer said Waymo could focus on the technology’s potential, not its tragic glitches.

“I do not think that this is an example of Battlestar Galactica or Terminator and people turning on robots,” he said. “This is senseless violence that needs to be stopped.”

Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at