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Man vs. Machine: Autonomous Cars Harassed by Drivers with Road Rage

For the last couple years, Waymo, Google’s autonomous driving program, has been testing their vehicles and logging upwards of 25,000 miles a day on roads in Arizona, and it looks as if they’re set to be joined by an array of other companies in the coming years that also want to test their autonomous driving technologies. Although the thought of soon being able to hail a driverless cab to get you to your next destination may be exciting to many of us, some people see the technology as a danger to their well-being and a threat to their job, and these people are making a stand against the driverless vehicles. In the city of Chandler, AZ, there have been 21 police-reported incidents involving the Waymo vehicles and disgruntled citizens. Are these people just a small group of outsiders, or do they represent a majority of the population that views the technology as harmful to our society?

According to Chandler police reports and reports from Waymo drivers (if you can call the person sitting in the car monitoring its actions a “driver”), encounters with angry citizens can range greatly in the severity of action taken against the vehicles. The encounters span everything from angry citizens simply yelling at “drivers” to, in one incident, brandishing a gun at the Waymo vehicle and passengers while yelling threats at them. Again, are these incidents isolated occurrences with individuals passionate about stopping autonomous driving technology for their own reasons, or do the individuals rebelling against Waymo represent the opinions of the greater population?

Starting on the milder end of the spectrum are the individuals that are simply publicly voicing their anger at Waymo and don’t do much more than slightly inconvenience the “drivers” in the autonomous vehicles. On multiple occasions, Waymo drivers have reported being screamed at, taunted, threatened, and told to leave the neighborhood (or even city) by pedestrians. Some of these pedestrians have even taken it so far as to impede the vehicle’s path. In one instance, a very intoxicated man stood in the middle of the street, stopping a Waymo vehicle in its tracks for roughly an hour while police arrived and defused the situation. With these more minor incidents, those that have voiced their reasons for wanting the technology gone typically cite the source of their displeasure as the fact that they weren’t asked to be involved in the testing of the technology, rather they feel that it was forced into their lives. Although Waymo and other companies did get permission from the city of Chandler to test their vehicles and technology there before cars actually hit the road, the citizens feel that they weren’t involved in the decision and are being forced to tolerate the presence of the autonomous vehicles. Many people report that they simply don’t trust the technology and think nothing can replace a human brain when it comes to operating a vehicle.

Getting a little more serious, there have been multiple reports of drivers running Waymo vehicles off the road or forcing them to stop and pull over. According to Waymo officials, they acknowledge how easy, in theory, it could be for a driver with road rage to “trick” the autonomous vehicles or force them off the road. According to the officials, the computerized systems in the autonomous vehicles is designed with safety in mind, and therefore the computer “drives” the vehicle in a very cautious manner. With that being said, a disgruntled driver could easily slam their brakes in front of a Waymo vehicle, cut it off suddenly, drive erratically near it, and so on to bring the autonomous to a vehicle to a sudden stop or force it to pull over. In one report, the same driver of a Jeep Wrangler reportedly ran Waymo vehicles off the road on six separate occasions before being warned by police to stop before there are consequences. One couple justified their choice to run Waymo vehicles off the road (until they were warned to stop by police) by stating a Waymo vehicle almost hit their 10-year-old son while he was playing in a cul-de-sac. A good portion of the other drivers running Waymo cars off the road are disgruntled employees working for transportation services that don’t want to lose their jobs to computerized vehicles. Smallest, still, is the group of people that are running the vehicles off the road simply because they want to- Waymo officials even jokingly agree that it’s just human nature to want to mess with or trick a machine.

In the most extreme cases, people have actually attacked the Waymo vehicles, with the intent of rendering them useless or scaring them away for good. On multiple instances, the Waymo “drivers” have reported pedestrians throwing rocks and other dangerous debris at the cars while they were driving. On one occasion, a pedestrian ran up to a Waymo vehicle while it was stopped at an intersection and slashed the tires with an unknown object before running off. In one of the most extreme cases, a man pulled out a .22-caliber revolver and threatened a Waymo vehicle and its “drivers” with it, although the individual’s wife claims that the event was caused by an age-related cognitive disease. In the case of the Waymo tire slasher, as well as many other individuals that have attacked the vehicles, they bring up the 2018 incident in nearby Tempe, AZ where a pedestrian was hit and killed by an autonomous vehicle being tested by Uber. Although no such incidents have occurred since then, many people fear that allowing autonomous vehicles on the road will certainly lead to more deaths and injuries of pedestrians.

Despite the alarming attacks on their vehicles, Waymo has been reluctant to press charges or work with police to apprehend the individuals that are acting out against them. Waymo seems to understand that new technologies will always have some pushback, and they don’t want to create further distrust and potentially disrupt their testing by punishing the small percentage of individuals that are causing problems. In fact, it seems like Waymo isn’t so much worried about the condition of their cars, but rather the psychological effect of the attacks on their “drivers”. Waymo officials have noted that, due to fear of being attacked or run off the road, some of their “drivers” sometimes switch the vehicles out of autonomous mode and manually drive the car when around other vehicles. Of course, they’re only trying to keep themselves safe and Waymo has no issue with that, however less time in autonomous driving mode means the vehicle learns slower, and testing will have to continue for longer before the full-fledged Waymo service rolls out.

So, do these individuals represent the majority of the population’s opinions about autonomous vehicles, or is this just a group of extremists? According to a Brooking survey, 21% of adult internet users said they would ride in an autonomous vehicle, compared to 61% that wouldn’t. With this bit of data, it seems like there is a general sense of hesitation towards the technology. This has to be taken with a grain of salt, however, as it must go on the record that there have only been 21 reported incidents in Chandler throughout the few years Waymo has been testing on the roads there. Considering the Waymo vehicles are logging upwards of 25,000 miles a day, that’s a considerably small number of incidents compared to the amount of opportunity pedestrians have to attack these vehicles if they feel so inclined.

Overall, yes, it seems there is some hesitation towards the overall adaptation of Waymo’s technologies. This hesitation, however, seems to be the normal aversion felt towards new technology; remember when portable phones were thought to be just a fad, and the thought of a powerful computer you could take with you was laughed at? Most of all, I think people are worried about potential job loss and injury. As Waymo and other companies further perfect their platforms, however, I’m confident all safety issues will be smoothed out and eventually these vehicles will find their way into society permanently. Until then, however, we’ll just have to wait and see if this battle between man and machine continues or finally dies out.

At Holbrook Auto Parts, we’re excited to see the automotive technology evolve and provide new transportation options to people all over the country. Until we have driverless cars in Detroit, however, we’ll just have to keep driving our own cars from stop to stop. Make sure your car can get you there with affordable new and pre-owned OEM auto parts from Holbrook!

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