People Are Attacking Driverless Waymo Vehicles in Tempe, Too

Waymo vehicles have been the targets of harassment in Tempe as well as Chandler.
Waymo vehicles have been the targets of harassment in Tempe as well as Chandler. Ray Stern
Two days after an Uber driverless car hit and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, someone used their own vehicle to try to run a Waymo vehicle off the road.

It was about 7:20 p.m. on March 20, near Priest Road and Southern Avenue in Tempe. The Waymo driver, identified in a police report only as "Anthony," said a dark-gray, later-model Toyota Camry was tailgating him and driving "all over the lanes." As Anthony drove north on Priest and turned left onto Southern, the other car tried to force him off the road, he told Tempe police.

Police never found the Camry.

"Ashley said the suspect also formed his hand into a gun shape and pointed toward his glove box."

tweet this
As the Arizona Republic and New York Times reported last month, Chandler police documented more than a dozen instances of people attacking or threatening Waymo vehicles in 2017 and 2018. Whether angry, upset, or just bored, people have followed the autonomous vehicles, thrown rocks at them, slashed their tires, swerved toward them, and in one case even pulled a gun on a backup driver, as the Republic's Ryan Randazzo reported on December 11. In the latter incident, Roy Leonard Haselton of Chandler was sentenced in early January to a year of supervised probation.

As Phoenix New Times has learned, attacks and threats against Waymo vehicles also occurred in Tempe last year.

The Google-affiliated company has tested its vehicles in metro Phoenix since late 2016. Its Chrsyler Pacificas, outfitted with cameras and laser-based navigation technology, sometimes carry passengers and typically utilize backup drivers behind the wheel.

The 2018 Tempe reports, obtained under public records law by Phoenix New Times, suggest that autonomous vehicles may have to deal with troublemakers even in places where they don't operate as frequently.

Waymo didn't respond to a request for comment on Sunday.

Most of Waymo's autonomous vehicle testing has occurred in Chandler, where the Google-affiliated company has its local headquarters. Waymo's test vehicles also have been visiting Tempe regularly. The college town, located just south and west of Chandler and home to Arizona State University, was formerly the primary domain of Uber's driverless program, until Uber left the state after the March 18 fatal crash that killed Elaine Herzberg.

Tempe residents, like their neighbors in Chandler, have become familiar with Waymo vehicles. And not all of them welcome the technology.

On June 22, just before 3 p.m., a Waymo vehicle pulled into the Tempe police substation at 8201 South Hardy Drive, states another report.

The backup driver, Ashley Velmarie Anderson, reported that an "unknown male suspect was following her in a white PT cruiser as she was driving around Tempe in her [Waymo] vehicle."

Anderson didn't return a message from New Times.

The Waymo stalker drove recklessly as he tried to keep pace and follow the Waymo vehicle, she told police.

The Chrysler PT Cruiser was "beat up," with rust marks down the passenger side. The driver, she said, was a "very tan" white man with sandy-blond hair, about 30-40 years old, with a small build, "big nose, big eyes, and big ears."

It wasn't just that his driving was scary: He held a "silver pipe" about a foot-and-a-half long, showing it off menacingly to Ashley as he yelled at her through his car window.

"Ashley said the suspect also formed his hand into a gun shape and pointed toward his glove box," she told police.

Anderson said the suspect continued in an unknown destination as Anderson drove the substation. She would recognize the suspect if she saw him again, and would aid in prosecution, she told cops. She was unable to get a license plate, but said Waymo would provide footage from the vehicle when it was available. Waymo apparently never did that, though. The company doesn't usually help with prosecutions.

click to enlarge The backup driver in this Waymo vehicle, seen on Wednesday in Tempe, used the steering wheel to make a turn after this picture was taken. - RAY STERN
The backup driver in this Waymo vehicle, seen on Wednesday in Tempe, used the steering wheel to make a turn after this picture was taken.
Ray Stern
Reports show that a week after that Tempe incident, the same man in the same white PT Cruiser harassed two Waymo vehicles in Chandler. Waymo showed Chandler police a video of that incident, but would not release the video to the agency.

As an officer saw in the video, which was captured from a Waymo vehicle, the PT Cruiser driver maneuvered near a different Waymo vehicle "making faces and gestures at the vehicle," the June 27, 2018, Chandler report states. The driver had trouble maintaining its position in a lane as he toyed with the semi-autonomous vehicles, then swerved suddenly to a different lane, "without regard for other traffic." As the first Waymo vehicle went into a left-turn lane, the man in the PT Cruiser pulled behind the second Waymo vehicle, making faces and gesturing as before.

A Waymo representative told Chandler police in that case the company didn't want to prosecute "but is concerned because the behavior is causing the drivers to resume manual mode over the automated mode because of concerns about what the driver of the other vehicle may do."

Cops combed through "photos of family members of the registered owner" of the vehicle, but never found the suspect or the owner, who apparently moved out of state. Police took no further action based on the lack of desire to prosecute, records state.

Two weeks later, on Mill Avenue — the same street where the fatal Uber crash occurred — a rock-wielding man brought a Waymo vehicle to a sudden halt.

Backup driver Steven Washington later told Tempe police that his vehicle was in autonomous mode just before 6 p.m. on July 6 when a man "jumped out and made [a] motion to throw a boulder through the passenger window ... causing the vehicle to stop."

The report notes that the attacker, a balding man who looked to be in his late 30s, didn't actually throw the "boulder." The driver quickly pulled the car into the parking lot of a fast-food store and called police.

Washington told police they'd have to contact the company to get a video from the vehicle. He didn't want to report disorderly conduct or aid in prosecution, the report states. Washington "just wanted it on the record in case it happens to other autonomous vehicles."

Chandler police took reports on three rock-throwers in 2017 and 2018, none of whom matches the description of the Tempe suspect. One of the cases, for example, involved an elderly white man throwing rocks four separate times in September 2017.

One Chandler man was issued a warning by police for multiple instances of trying to run a Waymo vehicle off the road in his Jeep, as the New York Times reported. He vented frustration over the driverless car program to the Times while his wife told the paper her husband "'finds it entertaining to brake hard'” in front of the self-driving vans."

With the re-election of Governor Ducey, it seems certain that more autonomous vehicles, of many different types, will be coming to Arizona roads in the next few years.

Can't we all just get along?

UPDATE: Waymo got back to New Times on Monday with the following statement for this article:

"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. 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 other first responders."
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern