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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Lauren Rosenblatt

Amazon's self-driving unit Zoox puts driverless taxi on the road

Zoox, Amazon's self-driving unit, has hit the road with its driverless robotaxi for the first time.

Founded in 2014, Zoox has been working to develop a fully autonomous vehicle that caters to the ride-hailing population. Just like a customer could call an Uber, Lyft or taxi for a ride to the airport, Zoox envisions a future where customers use its app to order a ride in a vehicle that drives itself.

The robotaxi doesn't have a steering wheel, pedals or driver's seat. Instead, it relies on a network of sensors to move through a city.

Some of the autonomous technology Zoox uses has already been on public roads; the company has been testing the software and hardware in Toyota Highlanders that roam around city streets, including in Seattle. But the autonomous robotaxi hadn't hit the public road until this month.

On Saturday, one of those robotaxis made its first voyage in Foster City, California, the San Francisco suburb where Zoox is based. Starting this spring, Zoox employees will be able to hop on a robotaxi for a 1-mile ride between two buildings on the Zoox campus.

The maiden voyage is one step closer to bringing self-driving tech to the general public, Zoox wrote in a blog post announcing the milestone Monday. "Through dirt, dust and thousands of rigorous testing scenarios, we've proven our technology is ready for reality," it wrote.

The company didn't have a timeline for when to expect autonomous rides to roll out to the general public or to more city streets.

Amazon acquired Zoox in 2020 and the 2,000-person company, which has offices in Seattle, operates as an independent subsidiary.

A year earlier, Amazon invested in another self-driving company: Aurora, based in Pittsburgh. In the years since, the tech and e-commerce giant has often pointed to autonomous vehicles as one of the areas it hopes to focus on.

Zoox arrived in Seattle in October 2021 to start testing its autonomous vehicle software and hardware, hoping the rainy conditions would teach its cars how to drive in inclement weather.

"Our goal isn't to change mobility in a few states; we want to reimagine transportation for the whole world," Zoox wrote in a blog post announcing its expansion. "To do that, we have to prepare for unfamiliar roads and novel conditions. Enter Seattle."

Zoox deployed a fleet of Toyota Highlanders, equipped with the same software and hardware that power its robotaxis. Unlike the robotaxi, the Highlanders have a steering wheel, pedals and a driver in the front seat, ready to intervene. But because it's the same technology, those test drives in Seattle are helping Zoox improve its fully autonomous robotaxis cruising around California.

As they drive around, the Toyota Highlanders create a map of Seattle, noting traffic lights, speed limits and bike lanes. That means when Zoox does launch its robotaxis in Seattle, "they'll have a full working knowledge of their environment from day one," the company wrote in a blog post.

Before launching its robotaxis on public roads this month, Zoox said it spent years testing the technology through simulations that mimicked heat and rain, private test tracks that mimicked city streets and a million autonomous miles on public roads with a driver in the front seat.

Zoox got the green light from California to begin testing on public roads without a safety driver in 2020, a change from its original permit that required a person in the driver's seat to take control if needed. This month, Zoox got approval from the California Department of Motor Vehicles to extend that permit to allow its robotaxis to operate autonomously on public roads.

Zoox hasn't given a timeline for when or where it will continue to roll out its robotaxis, but that couldn't yet happen in Seattle. Zoox self-certified to operate autonomous vehicles on Washington roads but, under regulations from Seattle's Department of Transportation, companies can only test autonomous vehicles in Seattle if there is a human driver in the vehicle.

In Foster City the vehicles can carry up to four people and travel up to 35 miles per hour. In addition to not having a driver, the robotaxis don't have a designated front or back, so they can easily move back and forth. It has sliding doors and two rows of seats facing each other.

The vehicle has an onboard computer to help it navigate. Unlike the testing vehicles roaming Seattle that have a lot of technology strapped to the roof, the robotaxi mostly tucks its software and hardware away.

The robotaxis have sensor pods on the upper corners of the vehicle that have lidar, cameras and sensor-cleaning hardware, said Chris Stoffel, the director of studio engineering. The sensors allow the vehicle to see 150 meters in all directions.

In January, Zoox began rolling out a new design for its test fleet of Toyota Highlanders, switching from the all-black vehicles to a white model with a colorful back end and slimming down the hardware on the roof.

In its announcement Monday, Zoox said it is the first company to deploy a "purpose-built" autonomous robotaxi that has carried passengers on public roads. It says its vehicle is "purpose-built" because Zoox built it from the ground up, rather than fitting technology into an existing vehicle. That approach allows Zoox to have more control of the technology, the ability to fix and update it quickly, and to scale up easily, Stoffel said.

Autonomous technology "deserves its own vehicle," Stoffel said. "A regular vehicle that we see driving around everyday, that we drive day in and day out, is truly designed around the driver. And our product is really designed around our AI driver and then our passengers."

"We also want people to adopt it, to actually enjoy it," he continued. "And we think funneling that into a ground-up product is the best way to do that."

A purpose-built vehicle also more closely fits with the public's perception of self-driving vehicles, Stoffel said. "When we ask the public 'what is a self-driving car?' to them, it's not a regular car without a driver. It's a unique experience. It's something more special."

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