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Waymo self-driving vehicles face attacks in Arizona

Slashing tires, throwing rocks, brake-checking, and a game of chicken

When Waymo started vehicle testing in Chandler, Ariz., in 2016, the company most likely expected some friction with the community: Autonomous vehicle development will at some point lead to replacing human drivers with advanced technology, and that doesn't sit well with everybody. Turns out the backlash has been significant — and violent — with people sabotaging the test vehicles and endangering the safety of the cars' human backup drivers.

As reported by the Arizona Republic and New York Times, the attacks have ranged from sliced tires to thrown rocks, to people attempting to run the test vehicles off the road. Guns have been brandished, and a worrying case had a driver aim a Jeep head-on at a Waymo car to force it to stop. A driver was said to "find it entertaining" to mess with the Waymo vehicles by brake-checking them, a habit that dated back to an incident where the driver's 10-year-old son was reportedly "nearly hit" by a Waymo car when playing in a cul-de-sac. The Tempe, Ariz., fatality involving an Uber car has also raised tension between Waymo and regular Arizona folks.

Some 21 attacks have been directed toward Waymo in Chandler, with a possibility that not all hostility has been reported to the authorities, and that more unrest will follow. Douglas Rushkoff, a media theorist from New York's City University, spoke with the NYT about the rationale: "There's a growing sense that the giant corporations honing driverless technologies do not have our best interests at heart," Rushkoff said. "Just think about the humans inside these vehicles, who are essentially training the artificial intelligence that will replace them." Rushkoff is the author of a book that happens to be titled "Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus."

In a statement, a Waymo representative said the attacks "involved only a small fraction of the more than 25,000 miles that the company's vans log every day in Arizona".

And Rob Antoniak, chief operating officer of Phoenix's Valley Metro transit system, said Arizona was still welcoming autonomous cars despite the publicized attacks. "Don't let individual criminals throwing rocks or slashing tires derail efforts to drive the future of transportation," he said.

And some of the altercations have been less violent: In one incident, an intoxicated man simply stood in front of a Waymo vehicle to prevent it from moving. Fortunately, it complied.

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