Exciting new autonomous vehicle ‘built for riders’ revealed by Amazon’s Zoox

By Rahul Vaimal, Associate Editor
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Zoox Fully Autonomous, All-electric Robotaxi

Zoox, the US-based self-driving startup owned by eCommerce giant Amazon, unveiled a fully autonomous electric vehicle without a steering wheel that can drive day and night on a single charge.

As many as four passengers can be carried in the vehicle described by Zoox as a driverless carriage or robotaxi. It travels in either direction with a motor at each end and it maxes out at 75 miles per hour. Two battery packs, one under each row of seats, produce enough energy for 16 hours of run time before recharging, the company said. Zoox plans to introduce an app-based ride-hailing service in US cities like San Francisco and Las Vegas in order to commercialize the technology.

“This is really about re-imagining transportation,” Zoox Chief Executive Officer Aicha Evans said. “Not only do we have the capital required, we have the long-term vision.” The company also plans to launch ride-hailing services in other countries, Mr. Evans said.

The company did not specify how much the rides would cost, but said that it would be affordable and competitive to the services run by other ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft. Nor did they say when the service would launch but confirmed it wouldn’t happen in 2021.

Despite being years from deployment, several of Zoox’s quirky-looking mint-green vehicles are already being built at a facility in California, US. The factory has the capacity to eventually produce 10,000 to 15,000 units annually, executives said. Suppliers send the major components including the drive unit, body, battery pack and so on, pre-assembled, and Zoox then does final assembly in stages.

The unveiling of a production car marks a significant step for a company that has been working on an autonomous passenger vehicle since its founding in 2014. At times Zoox was “ridiculed” for what it was trying to do, Chief Technology Officer Jesse Levinson said.

“Unlike many of the concept cars other companies have shown in the last several years this vehicle has passed all the FMVSS crash tests,” Mr. Levinson said, referring to tests required by US regulators.

Competitive field

Zoox is not the first to unveil a fully autonomous passenger vehicle. In January, GM’s Cruise showed off a battery-powered shuttle. Called the Origin, many of the controls present in conventional cars like pedals, rearview mirrors, steering wheel are eliminated from it. Cruise plans to commercialize the Origin through a ride-sharing service and says it’s cheaper to run than a conventional car.

Zoox’s vehicle is similar but smaller. On each corner a “sensor pod” houses a spinning laser sensor and other lidars and as well as cameras to help it navigate. A pair of front-facing cameras sit atop of the vehicle, with other less-visible sensors mounted on the sides. Each corner pod has a 270-degree field of vision, enabling the car to see more than 360 degrees of terrain at once.

Safety features of the car include airbags that in the event of a crash form a cocoon around each passenger, which Zoox says is unlikely given its confidence in the technology. The company can remotely control the vehicles manually and communicate in real time with passengers. Zoox says passengers will have the option to blur photos taken by the on-board camera for those concerned about privacy.

When Amazon acquired Zoox, industry watchers speculated that the eCommerce giant eventually planned to deploy fleets of driverless vehicles for delivery of products. Recently, Mr. Evans said there are currently no plans to do so but acknowledged that “at some point we could move packages.”