More than two years ago, Amazon subsidiary Zoox unveiled an electric, autonomous robotaxi it built from the ground up. Now, the cube-like vehicle that is loaded with sensors — and not a steering wheel — is starting to roll out on a few public roads in northern California.
A solitary Zoox robotaxi made its inaugural launch on public roads over the weekend after the company received a permit from the California Department of Motor Vehicles, the agency that regulates autonomous vehicles in the state. Zoox said the vehicle has also passed a self-certification from the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.
The scope of Zoox’s launch on public roads is limited; however, it does mark another milestone for a company that launched quietly eight years ago with an ambitious goal to build and operate a commercial robotaxi service with its own purpose-built vehicle. The company has been testing its custom robotaxi vehicles on “semi-private courses” in California since last year. This weekend was the first time the vehicle carried passengers on public roads.
Initially, robotaxis will only be available to Zoox employees and run as a shuttle service on about a two-mile loop between the company’s two main buildings in Foster City, California.
“That sounds simple, but it’s not. It’s a very complex route,” CEO Aicha Evans said in a news briefing with media. She noted that the route will include right-hand and left-hand turns, several traffic lights, pedestrians, bicyclists, as well as navigating in a parking lot and making bi-directional turns, which the robotaxi is designed to carry out.
The employee shuttle service is launching in the spring. Zoox did not disclose the size of the shuttle fleet. Zoox co-founder and CTO Jesse Levinson said the company has built dozens (not hundreds) of robotaxis and plans to add more of the vehicles to its permit with the DMW in the coming days.
It has been assumed that Zoox robotaxis would need an exemption from the federal government under FMVSS because the vehicles don’t include traditional driving controls such as a steering wheel or pedals. Nuro, another AV company focused on delivery, received an exemption in early 2020 for its low-speed R2 vehicle.
But Zoox has insisted for months that an exemption isn’t needed because it has incorporated FMVSS performance requirements into the vehicle.
The company didn’t disclose when its employee service might expand to incorporate more roads or members of the public.
“You can assume that at some point after the spring we’ll be able to put other folks in the vehicle, but we don’t have a specific date,” Levinson said. We will need additional permits to put non Zoox employees in our vehicles on public roads.”
Zoox currently tests Toyota Highlander vehicles equipped with its self-driving system on public roads San Francisco, Las Vegas, Foster City, California (near its headquarters) and Seattle.