Waymo is pulling its autonomous vehicles out of San Francisco in anticipation of Election Day unrest, The Verge has learned.
The Google spinoff is “temporarily pausing” its AV test operations in San Francisco on Tuesday and Wednesday and moving its fleet to Mountain View, where it will be parked in a “secured location,” according to an email from Transdev, Waymo’s fleet operations vendor.
The decision was made “out of an abundance of caution ahead of some of the planned protests around the general election,” Chris Cheung, general manager at Transdev North America, wrote in the email obtained by The Verge.
Two Waymo safety drivers told The Verge they got the word midday on Monday to manually drive their autonomous vehicles from San Francisco to Mountain View that afternoon. They then had to take Uber or Lyft rides back to their base in the city to retrieve their personal vehicles. A Waymo spokesperson said drivers will be reimbursed for those rides.
“Your safety is our number one priority.”
Safety drivers based in San Francisco will be paid while operations are suspended, Cheung said in the email. And Waymo’s fleet that is based in Mountain View will continue to test on public roads. “Your safety is our number one priority,” she added, “and we will continue to monitor the situation closely.”
Echoing Cheung’s email, the spokesperson for Waymo said, “Out of an abundance of caution and with the safety of our team in mind, we are temporarily suspending driving operations in San Francisco on 11/3 and 11/4.”
Waymo isn’t alone in its expectation of Election Day chaos. Businesses across the US are boarding up windows and stepping up security measures in anticipation of protests and possible looting. This was true in the Bay Area, where KRON4 reported that plywood was being used to cover up windows at the Westin St. Francis hotel off of Union Square. The results of the election are not expected to be finalized on November 3rd and may not be known for days to come.
The election will take place against the backdrop of a global pandemic and nationwide protests against the police killing of unarmed Black men and women. In May, protests in the Bay Area resulted in police firing tear gas and injuring demonstrators with rubber bullets. Hundreds of protestors marched peacefully through downtown San Francisco last Sunday in advance of the general election.
This isn’t the first time Waymo grounded its fleet of about 600 vehicles, more than half of which are based in Arizona. The company temporarily paused its vehicle testing operation back in March at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Some safety drivers had complained that the company was slow to respond to the health crisis, but Waymo insisted that it acted appropriately.
The company resumed testing in the Bay Area at the end of May, even as COVID-19 cases were increasing in California and across the country. Safety drivers expressed concern that the company continued to operate during widespread wildfires on the West Coast over the summer. Waymo eventually halted testing for a day in early September when the air quality registered as “very unhealthy.”
Update November 3rd, 11:46AM ET: Transdev General Manager Chris Cheung is a woman. A previous version of this story used the wrong pronoun. We regret the error.