Amazon-owned Self-driving Startup Zoox Reveals its Compact 4-Passenger Robotaxi

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【Summary】Amazon owned self-driving startup Zoox has unveiled its autonomous passenger shuttle. The fully-functional, futuristic self-driving vehicle was purposefully built from the ground up by Zoox for commercial use as part of a robotaxi service.

Eric Walz    Dec 14, 2020 4:15 PM PT
Amazon-owned Self-driving Startup Zoox Reveals its Compact 4-Passenger Robotaxi
The Zoox AV is designed for autonomous urban mobility.

Amazon owned self-driving startup Zoox has unveiled its autonomous passenger shuttle. The fully-functional, futuristic self-driving vehicle was purposefully built from the ground up by Zoox for commercial use as part of a robotaxi service.

Zoox is the first in the industry to showcase a driving, purpose-built robotaxi capable of operating up to 75 miles per hour. Earlier this year GM's autonomous driving division Cruise unveiled its own robootaxi vehicle, but its designed for low speed operation in urban areas.

Zoox was founded in 2014 with a mission  to reinvent personal transportation. The company's autonomous vehicle combines artificial intelligence and robotics with an end-to-end autonomy software stack, making getting around in cities safer and more efficient.

"Revealing our functioning and driving vehicle is an exciting milestone in our company's history and marks an important step on our journey towards deploying an autonomous ride-hailing service," said Aicha Evans, Zoox Chief Executive Officer. "We are transforming the rider experience to provide superior mobility-as-a-service for cities. And as we see the alarming statistics around carbon emissions and traffic accidents, it's more important than ever that we build a sustainable, safe solution that allows riders to get from point A to point B."

Zoox Autonomous Vehicle - Studio Side Female Entering Vehicle.jpg

Reports began to surface in May that e-commerce giant Amazon was interested in acquiring the company, indicating that Amazon is planning to add autonomous vehicles to its massive delivery platform, which can save the company billions in the future on shipping costs.

Research by Morgan Stanley's transportion analysts indicates that Amazon could spend upwards of $90 billion on just shipping items in the near future. The analysts also believe that Amazon could save roughly $20 billion annually by incorporating autonomous technology into its delivery vehicles.

"Autonomous technology is a natural extension of Amazon's efforts to build its own third party logistics network," said Morgan Stanley's analysts in a June statement.

Purchasing a startup with autonomous technology could help Amazon compete against companies like companies like General Motors and Tesla. It would also open doors for Amazon to enter the growing ride-sharing and food delivery business.

Although Zoox's first vehicle is designed to carry passengers, it can be retrofitted to carry cargo instead.

Zoox was officially acquired by Amazon in June 2020 for a reported $1 billion and operates as an independent subsidiary. Zoox is currently testing its vehicles in Las Vegas, San Francisco, and Foster City, CA.

Zoox's autonomous vehicle is uniquely designed. It features a bidirectional powertrain capable of changing direction without having to shift into reverse. The AV also features four-wheel-steering to maneuver in tight spaces much easier than conventional vehicles. The AV has no driver controls and is designed to operate without human intervention.

Without a steering wheel or driver's seat, the cabin can be made larger. The compact vehicle features a four-seat, face-to-face symmetrical seating configuration with bench seating that's found in conventional vehicle designs.

The doors are designed to slide open instead of opening outward, which is more difficult in crowded urban spaces. The design is especially useful for maneuvering near other vehicles and around bicyclists. 

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The AV also features a glass roof, to add to the feeling of spaciousness and to bring in more light to the cabin. Each passenger has the same amount of room, along with a place to wirelessly charge their cell phones and a cup holder.

At just 3.6 meters long, the Zoox autonomous shuttle has one of the smallest footprints in the automotive industry, the company claims.

The compact self-driving vehicle also features a 133 kWh battery, one of the largest available in electric vehicles today. The extra large battery allows the AV to operate for up to 16 continuous hours on a single charge. The battery pack is even larger that the one used by Tesla for the Model S, which comes equipped with a 100 kWh battery.

The vehicle design has more than 100 safety innovations not featured in conventional cars, according to Zoox. Among the safety features is a specially designed airbag system for bidirectional vehicles and carriage seating that envelops passengers, which is equal to five-star crash safety protections for all four seats, the company said.

Like most other autonomous vehicles being developed right now, the Zoox shuttle is equipped with a suite of advanced hardware for self-driving, including cameras, lidar and radar. The sensor placement provides an overlapping field of view, providing a 360 degree coverage around the vehicle for safe operation around pedestrians, bicyclists and other vehicles. 

The perception system can see over 150 meters in all directions, as well as around corners. Zoox says its vehicle is capable of level-5 autonomous driving,  which requires no human oversight. 

"Safety is the foundation of everything we do. Building a vehicle from the ground-up has given us the opportunity to reimagine passenger safety, shifting from reactive to proactive measures," said Jesse Levinson, Zoox Chief Technology Officer and Co-Founder. "These include new safety features such as our airbag design, redundant hardware throughout the vehicle, a unique sensor architecture, and a custom AI stack that detects and mitigates potential risks. Our vehicle has passed key FMVSS crash tests, and we are continuing to look for new, innovative ways to protect our riders and others on the road."

Zoox Autonomous Vehicle - Reveal Front Half.jpg

Zoox's 6-year history was not without controversy. In April of this year, the company agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by Tesla.

Tesla filed its suit in March 2019 accusing four Zoox employees of taking information related to its "WARP" system, which is Tesla's internal software for managing its manufacturing, warehousing, inventory, distribution and transportation.

Tesla alleged in one of the suits that the former Zoox employees "absconded with select proprietary Tesla documents useful to their new employer, and at least one of them used Tesla's confidential information to target other Tesla employees for hiring by Zoox."

"These materials and knowhow were developed by Tesla over many years, and at great expense," the lawsuit stated.

Zoox said the settlement required it to pay Tesla an undisclosed amount and undergo an audit to ensure that none of its employees had retained or are using any part of Tesla's confidential information.

In 2018, Zoox made headlines when it poached 17 engineers from Apple's secretive "Project Titan" autonomous car development program. 

Also in 2018, in a surprise move, Zoox fired co-founder and CEO Tim Kentley-Klay just a month after raising $465 million. The company hired Aicha Evans as its new CEO in January 2019. Prior to joining Zoox, Evans Evans served as Senior Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer at Intel Corporation.

In Dec. 2018, Zoox became the first company to receive approval from California regulators to operate an autonomous shuttle service.

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