A slashed tire, a pointed gun, bullies on the road: Why do Waymo self-driving cars get so much hate?

By Ryan Randazzo

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We followed Waymo self-driving cars for 170 miles while they tested their cars and this is what we saw. Arizona Republic

Police have responded to dozens of calls regarding people threatening and harassing Waymo vans.

CHANDLER, Arizona – A Waymo self-driving van cruised through a local neighborhood Aug. 1 when test driver Michael Palos saw something startling as he sat behind the wheel – a bearded man in shorts aiming a handgun at him as he passed the man's driveway.

The incident is one of at least 21 interactions documented by local police during the past two years where people have harassed the autonomous vehicles and their human test drivers.

People have thrown rocks at Waymos. The tire on one was slashed while it was stopped in traffic. The vehicles have been yelled at, chased and one Jeep was responsible for forcing the vans off roads six times.

Many of the people harassing the van drivers appear to hold a grudge against the company, a division of Mountain View, California-based Alphabet Inc., which has tested self-driving technology in the area since 2016.

“(The suspect) stated that he was the person holding up the gun as the Waymo vehicle passed by and that his intentions were to scare the driver,” said a report from Detective Cameron Jacobs, after police arrested 69-year-old Roy Leonard Haselton on Aug. 8.

The self-driving vans use radar, lidar and cameras to navigate, so they capture footage of all interactions that usually is clear enough to identify people and read license plates.

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According to police reports, Waymo test drivers rarely pursue charges and arrests are rare. Haselton was charged with aggravated assault and disorderly conduct, and police confiscated his .22-caliber Harrington and Richardson Sportsman revolver.

“Haselton said that his wife usually keeps the gun locked up in fear that he might shoot somebody,” Jacobs wrote in the report. “Haselton stated that he despises and hates those cars (Waymo) and said how Uber had killed someone.”

Haselton's wife told officers he was diagnosed with dementia, according to a police report.

Palos declined to discuss the incident. The Haseltons could not be reached for comment, and Roy Haselton's trial is scheduled for February.

Drivers trained to handle threats

Waymo test drivers usually call their own company dispatcher when they are threatened or harassed, using the in-car, push-button communications system, which allows them to talk without holding a phone.

They often do this instead of calling police directly, according to the reports.

Company officials said that the drivers are trained to handle threats.

“Safety is at the core of everything we do, which means that keeping our drivers, our riders and the public safe is our top priority," the company said in a statement.

"Over the past two years, we’ve found Arizonans to be welcoming and excited by the potential of this technology to make our roads safer. We believe a key element of local engagement has been our ongoing work with the communities in which we drive, including Arizona law enforcement and first responders.”  

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Test drivers can call police directly if they feel the threat warrants it, according to Waymo.

Police have asked Waymo to have drivers contact police immediately when drivers are threatened, allowing faster response times, but the company appears to minimize police interaction.

After an incident in September 2017 where a man threw rocks at two Waymos, the company did not contact police for four days.

Residents annoyed with Waymos

The incidents outlined in police reports show that despite the excitement by some about Arizona's role in developing the cutting-edge technology, not all Chandler residents welcome the self-driving car tests in their city.

That was clear Aug. 19, when police were called because a 37-year-old man who police described as “heavily intoxicated” was standing in front of a Waymo and not allowing the van to proceed.

“He stated he was sick and tired of the Waymo vehicles driving in his neighborhood, and apparently thought the best idea to resolve this was to stand in front of one of these vehicles,” Officer Richard Rimbach wrote in a report.

Phil Simon, an information systems lecturer at Arizona State University and author of several books on technology, said angst from residents is probably less about how the Waymo vans drive and more about people frustrated with what Waymo represents.

“This stuff is happening fast and a lot of people are concerned that technology is going to run them out of a job,” Simon said.

Simon said it is hard for middle-class people to celebrate technological breakthroughs like self-driving cars if they have seen their own wages stagnate or even decline in recent years.

“There are always winners and losers, and these are probably people who are afraid and this is a way for them to fight back in some small, futile way,” Simon said. “Something tells me these are not college professors or vice presidents who are doing well.”

There may be many undocumented instances where people threatened Waymo drivers.

Police reports indicate the company doesn't always report threats or harassment after an initial encounter, but might do so later if one person continues to cause problems.

That was the case Nov. 7, 2017, when a Waymo driver had to take manual control of his van to avoid a dark Jeep that appeared to intentionally pull into his laneand drive at him head on.

Someone driving the same Jeep had pulled a similar move on another Waymo driver the day before, and on four others in prior months.

A Waymo representative said this had been an ongoing issue with the same Jeep and other Waymo drivers, Officer Samuel Garday wrote in a report.

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Waymo told police the same Jeep on April 6, 2017, passed a Waymo and then hit the brakes aggressively in front of it, and about two months later drove head on toward a van, forcing the Waymo vehicle to stop.

“The driver of the black Jeep, who was described as an adult female, jumped out of her vehicle yelling at the Waymo driver to get out of her neighborhood,” according to a police report.

In early August of that year, the Jeep swerved toward two other Waymos, and did it twice more in November. The Waymo driver in one of those incidents had been in a van hit by a rock in June 2017, according to police reports.

Police used video footage from Waymo to identify the license plate of the Jeep. Garday visited a home and spoke with the mother of the man who was the registered owner of the Jeep.

“I described the complaints, and warned about potential enforcement action or dangerous accidents if this behavior persisted,” he wrote in his report. “She admitted she drove the Jeep sometimes, but did not admit to being the one in the complaints, nor did she say it was her son.”

Calling the police on Waymo

In some instances, annoyed residents have called the police on the self-driving cars.

That was the case on Oct. 5, when Juli Ferguson called to report suspicious activity by a Waymo.

She said the car's test driver appeared to be watching children playing for approximately 90 minutes. An officer contacted the driver, who reported conducting diagnostics on the vehicle and left.

"Everybody hates Waymo drivers," Ferguson told The Arizona Republic. "They are dangerous."

She said she called the police about the driver not because she dislikes the vans, but because the test driver had been parked in the area for so long.

Another event took place April 18, when Leah Bragdon called police to report what she thought was a drug deal between a Waymo passenger and a neighbor on her block.

"So this person was in the back of the van," she told The Arizona Republic. "I was concerned with the drug activity and thought it was interesting that the driver would allow that all to happen."

Waymos followed by other vehicles

In recent months, Waymo drivers have reported cases of their vans being followed.

On Oct. 21 at about 10:35 a.m. an officer was dispatched to interview a Waymo driver who reported being followed by a black Hyundai sport-utility vehicle for close to an hour.

“He contacted his supervisor about the suspicious vehicle and his supervisor programmed the vehicle to drive some arterial streets,” Officer Thomas Wagstaff wrote. “Wherever the Waymo car drove, the Hyundai followed.”

The Waymo driver pulled into the local police station and the Hyundai drove away, but then passed by again, according to the report.  

Prior to that, on June 26, a Waymo driver reported a man in a white PT Cruiser followed him and pulled alongside him, making threatening gestures and faces. Video of the incident was recorded by another Waymo driving in front of the two cars, according to the police report.

“I observed that the involved vehicle was also having issues maintaining its position in the number two lane of traffic,” Detective William Johnson wrote after reviewing the video. “The Waymo vehicle moves into a left turn lane and the driver of the involved vehicle abruptly changes lanes without regard for other traffic.”

A slashed tire, rock throwing

Police reports show a variety of other times when people attacked the vans but suspects were not identified.

That includes on Oct. 24 when a Waymo had one of its tires slashed by a man who came from a nearby park.

On at least four other occasions people threw rocks at Waymos.

Other events described in police reports include a bike swerving dangerously at a van and a man threatening to shoot a driver, but not brandishing a weapon.

Reach reporter Ryan Randazzo at ryan.randazzo@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-4331. Follow him on Twitter @UtilityReporter.

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