You can usually expect the police blotter on New Year’s Day to offer some choice nuggets from the previous evening’s events. But this year the New York Times took it to another level, kicking off 2019 with a front-page story on a whole new category of crime: harassment of autonomous vehicles.
Drawing on 21 police reports first detailed by the Arizona Republic last month, Simon Romero describes how enraged citizens of Chandler, Arizona are facing off against the self-driving cars that Google subsidiary Waymo has been testing around the United States. Averaging 25,000 driverless miles on Arizona roads alone every day, the company has made serious enemies of some city residents. Worried about safety and job security, or maybe just the unsettling new reality they represent, the most agitated Arizonans are doing everything they can to scare the cars away: slashing tires, pelting them with rocks, following them around and cutting them off in their own SUVs.
Romero points to several incidents that show how real hostility can be inspired by fear of an automated future. One man was arrested in August after he appeared to be threatening a Waymo vehicle with a .22 caliber revolver. Another man, “sick and tired of the Waymo vehicles,” decided to just stand in the road and block their path—a drunken act strikingly reminiscent of the famous 1989 face-off between an unknown protestor and a column of Chinese tanks in Tiananmen Square.
Chandler’s dissidents are not necessarily Luddites. Among the repeat offenders are a married couple, owners of a company that provides information technology to small businesses. “They didn’t ask us if we wanted to be part of their beta test,” said the wife, Elizabeth O’Polka, who told Romero she had forced driverless cars to pull over so she could yell at them. “They said they need real-world examples, but I don’t want to be their real-world mistake,” said her husband.
Intriguingly, Waymo has not pursued any criminal charges related to these incidents, and has even gone out of its way to avoid bringing attention to them. The assumption is the company wants to avoid any negative publicity that could endanger its relationship with city officials who permit public streets to be used as a proving ground. But as the headline for the print version of the Times’ story implies (“A Growing Test for Self-Driving Vehicles: Rocks, Knives and Guns”), it’s not a stretch to think that the artificial intelligence guiding Waymo’s driving machines might have something to learn from the threats to it in Arizona—including people who just want to scream at them as they speed by.