Amazon’s Going Mobile: First Look at Zoox Autonomous Robo-Taxi

Article By : Egil Juliussen

Zoox announced its robotaxi earlier. It lives up to all the expectations that have been floating around about the company.

December has been quite a month for autonomous vehicles (AV): there was the Aurora-Uber ATG acquisition; Cruise started driverless AV testing in San Francisco; Baidu Apollo got a driverless test permit in Beijing; Motional announced its next-generation, driverless AVs will be deployed on the Lyft network in multiple cities in 2023; and of special note, the Zoox announced its robotaxi.

The Zoox robotaxi, a special-purpose vehicle built for robotaxi applications, actually lived up to expectations.

To paraphrase Zoox, it is the first autonomous and electrical vehicle designed from the ground up to move people autonomously around cities. It is bidirectional, fully electrical, fully autonomous, with a symmetrical design from sensor location to passenger seating. Zoox also believes its robotaxi is re-imaging the future of transportation.

The next table summarizes all the public information I could find about the Zoox robotaxi. It covers vehicle features, sensors, production, and other information. More details are included below the table.

Zoox analysis
(Source: Egil Juliussen)

Overview
The Zoox robotaxi is currently focused on achieving L4 status in specific cities or areas of a city. Zoox says it is L5 capable, but in my opinion that is at least decade away.

Zoox is positioning its robotaxi as vehicle that is designed for riders with resulting advantages for all passengers. It is not for drivers because it has no steering wheel and human operated driving controls. It will only be used in ride-hailing fleet operations and will not be sold for personal use.

Zoox previous testing has been in three cities — Foster City (where its headquarters are), San Francisco, and Las Vegas. Zoox has been using the Toyota Highlander for robotaxi testing. In California DMV’s AV testing data, Zoox appeared in March 2017 for the first time. AV testing in Las Vegas started in October 2019.

Zoox did not say when deployment will happen, but said it is not in 2021. I have a separate discussion on deployment potential in a later section.

Vehicle information
Zoox has an innovative airbag that forms a cocoon around each passenger in the event of a crash. These airbags are integrated into the seats. Zoox designed the seats around safety, especially for the airbag, instead of adding safety to a car seat. The seat also includes 3-point safety belts for each of the four passengers.

Zoox says its robotaxi has passed all the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) crash tests. If Zoox will only use its robotaxis in its own fleet operation, FMVSS crash tests may not be required. However, a successful FMVSS test will be appreciated by future robotaxi passengers.

The robotaxi’s 4-wheel steering is innovative and is advantageous in maneuvering in tight spaces in cities. The robotaxi can even move sideways with this steering.

The independent, active four-wheel suspension is also innovative and is computer-controlled to give a comfortable and smooth ride.

The Zoox robotaxi maximum speed is 75 mph. This is high for robotaxi use-cases but may be useful in large cities with highways. However, this is probably a future feature and would require lidars with longer range than the current model.

The robotaxi dimension makes it a small car, but lots of room inside without driving controls. It looks like it is roomy for four passengers. The dimensions are nearly 12 feet long, nearly six feet wide and over six feet tall. The weight is quite high for a small vehicle at 5,400 pounds. This is due to the weight of its large battery.

Battery & motor
The Zoox robotaxi has a very large battery at 133 kilowatt-hours, which is much higher than current BEVs. The configuration is two battery packs, that are located under each row of seats. The large battery will power the robotaxi for up to 16 hours of operation. The robotaxi powertrain is two electric motors, which gives redundancy and reliability.

Sensors
The Zoox robotaxi has a lot of sensors — cameras, radars and lidars. Each corner has the same number of sensors that provide a symmetrical view from each corner. Some sensors point forward or backwards and some point to the side of the car.

The Zoox website has good pictures of each sensor category, which I am including below. The next picture shows the cameras.

(Source: Zoox)

The picture shows seven cameras at the left corner and seven at the right corner—all marked in red. The other side of the robotaxi has the same configuration, which means there are 28 cameras.

The next picture shows the radars used by the Zoox robotaxi.

(Source: Zoox)

This photo shows five radars at the left corner and five at the right corner—which are marked in green. The other side of the robotaxi has an identical configuration, which adds up to 20 radars.

The next picture displays the lidars used by Zoox.

(Source: Zoox)

This picture shows four lidars at the left corner and four at the right corner—all marked in blue. The other side of the robotaxi has the same configuration, which means there are a total of 16 lidars.

The Zoox robotaxi deploys16 sensors at each corner and a total of 64 sensors on a vehicle. Notice that many sensors are located on or near the roof to give a better view. Only a few radars are located low on the robotaxi.

The range of the sensors are 150 meter in any direction with 360-degree view with overlapping coverage of 270-degrees for each corner sensors.

There are also on-board cameras for communication with passengers, which are not included in the above discussion.

AV hardware & software
The Zoox AV hardware consist of two computer systems which are located in the floor of the robotaxi. The two computers provide redundancy and reliability. The computers use Nvidia Drive PX Pegasus, which was announced in October 2017. Nvidia rates Pegasus performance at over 320 trillion operations per second.

The software platform is proprietary. The software is based on neural network perception and prediction model of other road users. Like other AV software platforms, Zoox use high-definition maps for location technology.

Zoox’s solution to edge cases (what to do when the software is stumped) is called TeleGuidance. Zoox will have a remote operation center where a remote driver can guide the robotaxi software on how to proceed to solve the new edge case. The remote operator does not drive the robotaxi.

Robotaxi production
Zoox already has a production facility in Fremont, California. It is doing final assembly of sub-systems and major component that have been assembled by a variety of suppliers. There is minimal data on who the suppliers are, but more information is expected in 2021.

The current production volume is very small and will not grow much until more robotaxi testing are completed. Zoox said it has the capacity to eventually produce 10K to 15K robotaxis per year.

Robotaxi Deployment
Zoox did not give a timeline for robotaxi deployment, but I can add some speculative perspectives. This requires a timeline on Zoox’s recent robotaxi testing. It is also useful to leverage the information from an earlier column Robotaxis: Next Steps | EE Times.

The next table summarizes where Zoox has been testing robotaxis and adds estimates on how this may lead to future deployment. Zoox got California DMV permit for driverless testing in September 2020 for Foster City. It is good for fair weather testing with speed up to 45 mph.

Zoox will also need a California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) permit for deploying a paid robotaxi service. CPUC announced a new program on November 19, 2020 that allows paid robotaxi services. Hence Zoox should be able to get such a permit in 2021. Zoox will also need about a year worth of robotaxi testing before a robotaxi service should be launched.

Zoox will probably launch its robotaxi service first in Foster City and my best guess is that will happen in mid-2022. San Francisco should be next, and this could happen in late 2022.

Zoox analysis
(Source: Egil Juliussen)

Las Vegas is the third city for Zoox with testing starting in October 2019. It is harder to estimate the start of Las Vegas robotaxi service as Zoox may focus on California first due to resource limitations. The above table shows my best guess is late 2022 for Zoox robotaxi service in Las Vegas.

Zoox will also launch robotaxi services in other California cities. Los Angeles and San Jose are listed in the above table as most likely cities for the 2023 and 2024 timeframe. Other potential cities are Sacramento and San Diego.

Zoox robotaxi service in other U.S. cities are much harder to predict. The states with the most AV activities are Arizona, Texas and Florida. Hence a few cities in those states are listed above.

Zoox also plans to launch robotaxi services in other countries, which is even harder to guess, but Europe is the most likely region. UK has the most current AV activities and is on the list. Germany and France started talking about AV regulation in the last two months and thus made the list above. Zoox had some early AV research projects in a Swedish university and that may be another possibility.

Amazon goods delivery
I think it is a forgone conclusion that Amazon will use the Zoox software platform for goods delivery AVs. This will happen because Amazon has ever growing logistics needs. The question is when and how fast this will happen. It is likely that the robotaxi software platform would need additional development to be used for goods AVs.

Amazon has its own sidewalk AV, called Scout, that it has been testing in Washington state for about two years. The Zoox robotaxi in its current form with interior modification could augment and complement Scout in future last mile goods deliveries.

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