Zoox, the robotaxi startup Amazon bought two years ago, says it is now certified to meet the highest U.S. crash safety standards and is the first self-driving tech company to do so. However, it isn’t quite ready to say when its quirky electric vehicle will begin picking up fare-paying customers.
“We’re really close. It’s coming together,” Jesse Levinson, Zoox’s cofounder and CTO tells Forbes during a tour of the company’s assembly facility in Fremont, California on Tuesday, the first time it’s been open to public view. “You’re going to see it sooner rather than later.”
The eight-year-old company, based in Foster City, California, completed crash tests with its small, van-like robotaxi and submitted results to the government at the end of June. Zoox’s vehicle is radically different from Waymo and General Motors’s Cruise, which already operate small-scale robotaxi programs in suburban Phoenix and San Francisco using modified electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles, which combine a battery pack and small gasoline engine. It plans to start its service with a purpose-built, four-passenger vehicle that has no steering wheel, pedals or conventional driving controls. With electric motors and battery packs in the front and back, the boxy vehicle can move easily in either direction.
Levinson, a Stanford University-trained computer scientist who’s been the architect of Zoox’s autonomous driving tech since its founding, is right to be cautious about a commercial timetable. In part, that’s because it’s out of his hands. To operate its robot on wheels on public roads and move forward with a ride service, Zoox needs approval from California’s Department of Motor Vehicles and the U.S. Transportation Department.
Getting those green lights may have just gotten harder following an accident involving a Cruise robotaxi that was struck by another driver in a San Francisco intersection last month. Both a passenger in the Cruise vehicle and the driver of the Toyota Prius that hit it sustained minor injuries. The accident is being reviewed by both California officials and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA.
Cruise began giving rides to passengers in San Francisco in late June. Like Zoox, it plans to offer rides in its Origin robotaxi vans with inward-facing seats and no steering wheel or pedals, but for now relies on a fleet of electric Chevrolet Bolt hatchbacks. Cruise was also the first company approved by California to operate a fee-paying autonomous ride service without a human backup driver at the wheel. Waymo is also seeking that designation.
Alphabet’s Waymo, which started as the Google Self-Driving Project 13 years ago, doesn’t disclose how much revenue it gets from robotaxi rides and delivery services. Its Chrysler Pacifica plug-in hybrid minivans have been giving rides to passengers in the Phoenix suburbs of Chandler and Tempe since 2020.
Zoox’s current on-road test fleet is made up of Toyota Highlander SUVs loaded up with computers, laser lidar, cameras, radar and other sensors, but it’s begun low-level production of robotaxis at its Fremont facility. While Tesla’s sprawling San Francisco Bay Area plant churns out hundreds of thousands of electric cars annually, Zoox’s factory will be able to produce “tens of thousands” of robotaxis a year. They’ll be deployed solely in ride services it plans to launch initially in San Francisco and Las Vegas.
The company is confident about the safety of its vehicles because all crash-testing and certification are overseen by Chief Safety Innovation Officer Mark Rosekind, who led NHTSA during the final years of the Obama Administration.
“We have over a hundred (safety innovations) built into our vehicle that are not available in cars that are on the road today,” Rosekind told reporters touring the facility. Those include a u-shaped “horseshoe” airbag that deploys from the roof of the robotaxi to wrap around all passengers in the event of a crash.
“Building from the ground up we knew which federal motor vehicle 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,” Rosekind said. It’s taken five years but he said the vehicle would achieve a five-star federal crash rating from NHTSA, the highest level possible, if it were sold to consumers. “We’re not required to do that since we’re not selling it to anyone.”
The vehicle, which resembles a small-scale subway car, is surprisingly spacious. Despite being a meter shorter than a Toyota Corolla, the lack of a conventional engine and driving controls allows for a roomy cabin.
During a brief, low-speed test ride around the factory braking and acceleration were smooth and the Zoox vehicle stopped to allow people walking through a parking lot to pass. Although it wasn’t a technically challenging course, the ride experience is notably different from that of Waymo or Cruise vehicles because of the unique cabin and seating design, with passengers facing each other. It’s less a case of feeling chauffeured and more akin to high-tech mass transit.
Once it’s certified to operate on public roads, the robotaxi is designed to go up to 75 mph on the highway, powered by a 132-kilowatt-hour battery system that’s robust enough to operate for 16 hours a day before needing to be recharged.
Levinson, son of Apple Chairman Arthur D. Levinson, said Zoox isn’t under competitive or financial pressure to begin ride operations and that Amazon, which paid $1.2 billion for the company in 2020, is willing to be patient. “We’re not out there raising money,” he said.
“There’s massive demand for going from point A to B in a city. It’s a multitrillion-dollar market, so even for a company of Amazon’s size that’s materially interesting,” he said. “It’s not a get-rich-quick scheme. … It’s not like in two years Amazon is going to be making significant amounts of money. Over the next decade, they absolutely should be—if we do a good job.”