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Slow and Steady May Win the Self-Driving Robotaxi Race

A robot driving a taxi

For several years, transportation enthusiasts have touted the arrival of the self-driving taxi. They promised all of us would soon be relying on an autonomous taxi for ridesharing services in the near future. While progress has been slower than expected, it doesn’t mean the experts weren’t correct. In fact, it seems that several companies are moving full steam ahead with very promising results. Several companies are already testing such vehicles in major cities in controlled environments. And one just received the highest level of safety certification at a federal level. Though self-driving car predictions may be a little off, their eventual accuracy looks to be on point.

(Yes, Bold made some self-driving car predictions. Yes, they were a little off.)

This past month, Zoox, an autonomous taxi startup, was awarded the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards certification. It is the first company to earn such a designation among those pursuing self-driving taxi concepts. This is a major step in the right direction in advancing full-fledged operations of these vehicles on a national scale. And with Amazon as Zoox’s parent company, this has important relevance for the future of self-driving transportation. While this doesn’t mean such offerings will be immediately available, their arrival should be in the very near future. And companies invested in the long game will likely be those that reap the greatest benefits.

“We’re really close. [Our self-driving taxis is] coming together. You’re going to see it sooner rather than later.” – Jesse Levinson, Zoox’s cofounder and CTO

The Autonomous Taxi Companies in the Lead

While Zoox and Amazon may be the first to receive the prestigious federal safety rating, other self-driving taxi companies exist. In fact, two companies are actively involved in current operations in controlled test areas. The first is General Motor’s Cruise, which has been approved for autonomous vehicle operations in select areas of San Francisco. The other is Alphabet’s Waymo, which has been testing its models in the suburbs of Pheonix. Both of these companies have been approved by the DOT and state DMV agencies for these test operations. Thus far, Zoox has yet to receive such approval.

Zoox itself is based in Foster City, California, and plans to eventually pursue operational approval in the state. Given that these approvals are often difficult to predict, Zoox has been conservative in their estimations. At the same time, however, Zoox looks to be more focused in safety and performance. Unlike Waymo and Cruise, Zoox’s self-driving taxi is a fully electric vehicle and has a host of additional safety features. Zoox is also building infrastructures so that they can produce tens of thousands of their autonomous taxi in the future. Thus, while Waymo and Cruise look to be rushing to be first to market, Zoox has a longer-view perspective. However, all three are getting closer and closer to making autonomous travel a reality.

“Building from the ground up we knew which federal automotive safety standards we would have to incorporate and then we did simulations, engineering tests, analysis, etc. to make sure we could meet those performance requirements.” – Mark Roskind, Chief Safety Innovation Officer

A Closer Look at Amazon’s Zoox

In addition to having a different approach, Zoox’s self-driving vehicle also exhibits several unique features. The vehicle itself looks like a small van that is actually quite roomy inside. A big reason for its spaciousness is that it lacks traditional equipment that you might expect. For example, it has no steering wheel, pedals, or driving controls. Also, it can accommodate 4 passengers who are seated facing one another. And it has fully electric motors in the front and rear, which allows smooth movements in all directions. While this is not totally unique compared to other autonomous taxi companies, Zoox is fully electric and not a hybrid like some.

A taxi driven by a computer
Are you ready to ride in an autonomous taxi?

In addition to these features, Zoox’s self-driving taxi boasts both high performance and innovative safety features. The autonomous taxi can travel up to 75 mph on the highway with its 132-kwh electric motors. It can also travel up to 16 hours, which makes it ideal for ride-sharing purposes. The Zoox little van also has a horseshoe-shaped airbag that drops down from the roof upon impact. This design allows all passengers to be protected from injury should another vehicle collide with the car. Undoubtedly, this is one feature that helped Zoox in its pursuit of federal safety certification. And it’s also a feature state DMV agencies will appreciate when state certifications are considered.

“There is a huge demand for moving from point A to B in a city. [The autonomous taxi market is] a billion-dollar market, even materially interesting for a company the size of Amazon. [However] it’s not a plan to get rich quick.” – Jesse Levinson, Zoox’s cofounder and CTO

Projecting the Future of the Autonomous Taxi

Given the current landscape of the self-driving taxi, predicting the future of self-driving cars is difficult. For example, a recent mishap involving the Cruise autonomous taxi in San Francisco is being evaluated by the California DMV currently. Accidents, including those unrelated to a self-driving taxi malfunction, push the pause button for states in advancing these services. And this is precisely why Zoox is not making any bold predictions about its go-live dates. It’s also the reason the company has decided to invest heavily in safety and pursuing a more cautious approach. Thus far, this strategy looks to be a preferred one.

Of course, not all autonomous taxi companies are as patient as Zoox. This perhaps differs because Zoox’s parent company, Amazon, has much broader plans for these vehicles. Given Amazon’s need for autonomous delivery services, the Zoox self-driving taxi will likely evolve into a fleet of autonomous vehicles. This is why Amazon purchased Zoox in 2020 for the price of $1.2 billion. Because Amazon was in it for the long game from the start, Zoox is under little pressure to be first to market. Instead, its focus is more on getting it right from the start. And as the first company to receive federal safety certification, everything seems to be going as planned. Zoox may not beat Waymo or Cruise in providing ridesharing services. But it is well-positioned to be the eventual industry leader in autonomous travel.

 

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