Zoox commences testing of its autonomous, purpose-built shuttle on public roads in California. The SAE Level 4 shuttle, designed for four passengers, does not feature driver controls, unlike many other robotaxis in development and in testing at the moment. The company's shuttle is restricted to 35 mph for the time being, but can navigate complex city traffic.
Residents of San Francisco Bay Area may have become used to the sight of robotaxis by now, after GM's Cruise launched operations in the city in early 2022. But they may not be used to seeing driverless shuttles without a steering wheel–or any resemblance to other cars on the road.
That's exactly what Amazon-owned autonomous startup Zoox launched earlier this month, with the purpose-built autonomous robotaxi without traditional controls ferryingx passengers in Foster City, California, just across the bay from Fremont.
The SAE Level 4 shuttle is the first purpose-built robotaxi to be self-certified to the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS). For the moment Zoox has plans to launch the shuttle service between its two main office buildings, and just for its full-time employees.
The shuttle will also be restricted to 35 mph, but will have to handle fairly complex traffic on public roads, including right- and left-hand turns. As other robotaxis, the shuttle will also respond to traffic signals, while dealing with pedestrians, cyclists, and other road users.
"Becoming the first company to operate a purpose-built robotaxi with passengers on open public roads in California is a significant milestone in not only Zoox's journey, but for the autonomous vehicle industry at large," said Aicha Evans, CEO at Zoox.
Powered by a 133-kWh battery, the Zoox shuttle was shown earlier this year at CES, though at the time the company did not indicate the full extent of its plans for an operational rollout in California this year. Quite a lot has to happen before residents of the Bay Area will be able to summon a shuttle via an app, though that's the eventual goal.Zoox has its own manufacturing facility for the shuttle in Fremont, in contrast to relying on other automakers
It could be said that Zoox has taken a much more difficult path to offering Level 4 ride-hailing service in developing its own vehicle, instead of just equipping existing models as most other autonomous developers have done. This means that it will also have to factor in the costs of manufacturing the shuttles, likely using a contract manufacturer, in order to achieve scale. Engineering an EV from the ground up, especially one with a unique design, will mean these development costs will have to be paid by someone at some point, indicating an even more complex business model than most other autonomous tech developers have chosen.
"It is a feat of design and engineering—and the culmination of years of hard work—to drive a purpose-built vehicle, fully autonomously and without safety drivers," said Jesse Levinson, co-founder and chief technology officer at Zoox. "With the ability to operate our vehicle on public roads and the deployment of our employee shuttle service, we'll continue to refine and improve our technology and operations as we prepare for our commercial service launch."
When it comes to robotaxis, one other question the Zoox shuttle raises design-wise is whether the potential for sharing rides with as many as three strangers in a conference-style interior layout will be an appealing option in a future market where ride-hailing passengers will have choices in which robotaxi to summon. Zoox's design is more suited to ride-pooling rather than being a personal taxi, which is what its competitors offer in other electric vehicles like the Chevrolet Bolt.
What's clear at this point is that Zoox's operational debut in California, albeit just for employees at this time, is a significant milestone in the race to Level 4 autonomous tech. But the competition isn't sleeping.
Will shuttles of this particular type become popular as Level 4 tech arrives, or would you prefer to be in a car-based shuttle with no other passengers? Let us know in the comments below.