The Zoox robot taxi has more in common with a supercar than you think. Look past the Zoox’s lunchbox-shaped exterior and inside is the same carbon fiber cabin found in a McLaren.
“Yes, we know that supplier very well,” Andy Piper, Zoox’s VP of vehicle development, told londonbusinessblog.com, when it was noted that the Zoox robot taxi’s carbon fiber cab is similar to what supercar automaker McLaren uses in its F1 and production vehicles. .
The super strong, yet lightweight material protects the occupants during collisions on the track or in the regular world and Zoox has added it to its autonomous cube. It is part of a series of safety features that the Amazon-acquired startup has implemented in its prototype vehicles as it prepares to test its robotic axis in San Francisco, California, Seattle, Washington and Las Vegas, Nevada with the ultimate goal of commercial service. to launch.
On their own or with a little push from networked monitors, it’s the sensors that allow the vehicle to see the world. The Zoox systems offer a 360-degree view of the world. Prominently placed on the four corners of the vehicle’s roof are lidar, radar and cameras.
While not aesthetically pleasing, this setup that looks out of the main housing does more than just help you see what’s around, it’s also built so that it can be replaced without too much disruption to the vehicle. As the company continues to develop its sensor array, it can easily update the hardware of the vehicles already deployed.
This modular thinking also applies to the driver units on both sides of the vehicle. The whole device includes the wheels, battery pack and motor. The harness is slid into the vehicle and screwed on. The idea is that if any of these items require service, the drive unit that needs service can be removed and serviced. Meanwhile, another drive unit can take its place and the vehicle itself can get back on the road with minimal disruption.
Each of these units contains a battery pack with a capacity of 66.5 kWh, bringing the total battery capacity of the vehicle to 133 kWh. Zoox declined to share projected range figures, but said the goal is to keep the vehicle in use for at least 16 hours.
The vehicles themselves are based on a 400-volt system and support DC fast charging up to 100 kW. Given the size of the battery and the fact that the usual route will be in heavy city traffic, it should be feasible to stay on the road for the full 16 hours, while the charge rate will be more than enough to charge the batteries overnight. to fill.
To navigate through cities, Zoox, in addition to the usual sensor suite, will create constantly updated high-definition maps. To ensure the maps are up to date, the Zoox training and Zoox ride-hailing fleet will record the world as they move around using the sensor suite.
Companies like GM are already using these types of cards to help their Super Cruise driver assistance system. It helps the system understand what is happening in front of the car, but also on the road. What gives Zoox an edge is that it would constantly update its information with the same data the fleet creates to drive around.
While autonomous driving requires the vehicles to be able to do this without a solid connection to the home base, there are instances where autonomous vehicles can go haywire. When that happens, monitors can help a baffled vehicle by giving it a new path to get around the problem.
A recent problem with the cruise fleet in San Francisco, where cars in the autonomous fleet converged on an intersection, can be attributed to a network connection problem. Cruise HQ couldn’t tell the cars the best way out of the predicament. Zoox, multiple secure wireless networks. This redundancy in network access should reduce the chances of what happened to Cruise.
After touring the company’s manufacturing facility, we were placed in an “acclaimed” Zoox that drove us across the parking lot. The seats are comfortable with wireless charging and USB-C charging ports.
A 7-inch screen allows passengers to manage individual climate controls, listen to media, contact Zoox and open and close the vehicle doors at the start and end of the ride.
We also experienced how the vehicle can travel in both directions. Bi-directionality comes with the advantage of four-wheel steering in addition to a four-wheel drive vehicle. It gives the vehicle the ability to pull away in any direction and navigate narrow city streets.
Levinson accompanied us on our “journey” and while the co-founders’ robotic axes are not yet being tested on the city streets, he is aware of the competition Zoox will face in the future.
Levinson believes that while initial rides may be pricey, Zoox rides could undermine Uber and Lyft as it expands its network. That said, as more Zoox (Zooxs?) hit the road, the company can do so without adding more traffic to city streets like Uber and Lyft have. Levinson believes that since Zoox drives the vehicles at all times while Uber and Lyft drivers essentially continue to drive wherever they want while waiting for a ride, “we can be much more accurate about where we send our vehicles and what they do when they wait for customers.”
The company is also already considering ride-hail pooling (again without sharing timelines or offering too much detail) as an option for its vehicles alongside a traditional ride-hailing service.
To market the autonomous Zoox vehicles in a way that inspires confidence among customers, a lot of technologies need to be merged.
Zoox doesn’t know when it will launch in any city, but Zoox CTO and co-founder Jesse Levinson said during a tour of the company’s manufacturing facility in Fremont, California, “We’re very close. It’s coming together.”
Since Zoox launched eight years ago, the world of autonomous vehicle technology has been tumultuous to say the least. The industry got caught up in the hype cycle and then plunged into a wave of consolidation, including Uber selling its autonomous unit to Aurora in 2020, Cruise buying Voyage, and countless startups shutting down forever. Even Zoox was picked up by Amazon.
Progress has been made during consolidation. For example, Waymo and Cruise have launched limited commercial robotic axi services. Still, Cruise’s recent launch with paid rides hasn’t gone as planned. Two recent cruise vehicle incidents and an anonymous letter sent to California regulators have marred San Francisco’s autonomous ride service.
During that time, there have also been unfulfilled promises from Tesla and Ford. Neither company has deployed a robotic axi service, despite guarantees to do so in 2020 and 2021 respectively. Ford has postponed its service until 2022, while Tesla’s plans are still in the air and relying on FSD exiting beta, which doesn’t seem to be happening anytime soon.
So it’s easy to see why Zoox doesn’t commit to a timeline.
Potential future vehicles
All this is built into the current prototype that it wants to test on real roads. How the vehicle will evolve once that happens is unknown, but Levinson and the team are considering additional autonomous vehicles of various sizes and for various uses, including delivery, which parent company Amazon should be happy with.
When the Zoox test drive ended unceremoniously, we lingered in the vehicle for a few more moments. The small displays next to each passenger prompted us to open the door. It’s a minor effort, but allowing riders to open doors instead of doing it automatically is a big deal. The outside world can be a dangerous and chaotic place. Being pushed into it without agency can be dangerous. As a company, Zoox seems to understand this and have brought safety into a complex menagerie of autonomous and electric vehicle technology.
Building an autonomous two-way electric vehicle safe and smart enough to circumnavigate some of the most challenging roads in the United States is a bold project. One that takes time. Just don’t ask for how long.