WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Amazon has a reputation of being a pioneer, and soon they could be the first company to roll out autonomous delivery vehicles en masse.
It seems like nowadays everyone has a self-driving vehicle project on the go as companies race to be a part of the future multi-trillion dollar autonomous transportation and mobility marketplace. Now Zoox, a self-driving car company that autonomous shop company and global E-Tail giant Amazon bought in June, has finally revealed its autonomous robo-taxi after six years of gnarly prototypes and secrecy. And while it broadly resembles other first-generation autonomous vehicles from automakers like Toyota’s E-Pallet and other automotive startups like self-driving hotel room company Aprilli and uni-modal transportation company Next, Zoox’s robo-taxi has a few standout features, as well as an overall polish to it that makes obvious why Amazon thinks it might be the cornerstone of its future autonomous delivery and ride-hailing service.
The autonomous “carriage-style” vehicle is an all electric four-wheeler that seats up to four people, and is similar in appearance to fully self-driving vehicles created by other companies in the space. At just 3.63 meters long, it falls somewhere in between the big, boxy Origin robo-taxi from General Motor’s Cruise division and the delivery focused slash autonomous shop concept from Robomart.
Fully autonomous, fully electric, fully styled?
To further differentiate itself Zoox has spent the last few years working on outfitting its autonomous vehicle with the ability to drive both forward and backward, and side to side, or “bi-directionally.” Combined with four-wheel steering functionality, Zoox says its vehicle will be able to handle precise manoeuvres like “tight curbside pickups” and “tricky U-turns.” Zoox also claims its vehicle is the first of its kind to be able to travel at up to 75 mph, a possible nod to ambitions to one day put the vehicles on the highway.
Like most early autonomous vehicles, Zoox’s robo-taxi is decked out in safety technology. There’s a crown of six LIDAR pucks up top, as well as multiple radar sensors and cameras. Zoox says this provides a 270-degree field of view at each corner, virtually eliminating blind spots as well as providing redundancy in case a sensor fails. The sensor suite allows the vehicle to see objects up to 150 meters away, Zoox says.
The interior of Zoox’s vehicle is less coldly technological. The cozy bench seats, which face inward, hence the term “carriage-style,” are surrounded by what looks like textured fabric. The seats also conceal what Zoox says is a radical rethink of how airbags work. There are cupholders and wireless charging mats between seats. And the ceiling has a starry sky pattern, the kind commonly seen in luxury vehicles like the Rolls Royce Ghost. A small touchscreen at each seat is the most obvious tech found inside; Zoox says passengers will use these to control music, air conditioning, or see their route and ETA.
It’s powered by a 133kWh battery pack, which is a little bigger than the packs that currently power Tesla’s most capable vehicles, and the company says these battery packs will last for 16 hours of continuous use which is more than enough for a day’s work.
That should also be plenty of juice to help Zoox and Amazon start chipping away at their collective goal, which is creating an autonomous ride-hailing service like Google’s Waymo service which launched in Texas last year.
It’s a goal that Zoox has been pursuing since it was founded in 2014, and one it sought in almost theatrical secrecy before stumbling through a public spat with its co-founder and CEO in 2018, who was ultimately pushed out. The company has been testing prototypes of its self-driving vehicle in San Francisco and Foster City in California, as well as in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Of course, Zoox is just part of Amazon’s increasingly massive push into the transportation sector. Not only has the retail giant essentially built out its own logistics and shipping infrastructure but it’s also poured a ton of money into EV startup Rivian and Aurora, the autonomous vehicle outfit that just bought Uber’s self-driving division, in its quest to develop it’s first generation of autonomous electric delivery trucks.