Amazon’s Zoox unveiled its self-driving robo-taxi earlier this week, and it looks surprisingly similar to a number of other room-on-wheels robo-taxi concepts we’ve seen over the years. It looks quite futuristic, featuring a carriage-style layout, two bench seats facing each other, and bus-style doors on both sides. There are no controls for a human driver. The taxi itself is electric, of course, powered by a large 133-kWh battery that gives it about 16 hours of self-driving time at speeds up to 75 mph. The prototype can also move from side to side, featuring four turning wheels that can allow it to maneuver in tight spaces.
In addition to a collection of radar sensors and cameras all around, good for a 270-degree view from each of the four corners, the taxi features no fewer than six Lidar sensors painting a detailed picture of its surroundings up to 150 meters, which is about 492 feet, away. The interior is no less futuristic, featuring over 100 safety innovations according to its developer, including air bags that wrap around passengers in the event of a collision.
The robo-taxi was developed by the startup, which had been working on the concept in secrecy since 2014. Amazon purchased the company over the summer as part of an effort to get into the robo-taxi race, which has been moving slowly in the direction of Level 4 autonomy for the past few years, even as developers have been fielding working prototypes in some geographic areas. The race to Level 4 robo-taxis of this type had slowed somewhat after 2018 after a particularly optimistic era of autonomous vehicle development had given way to slightly more cautious expectations.
“Revealing our functioning and driving vehicle is an exciting milestone in our company’s history and marks an important step on our journey towards deploying an autonomous ride-hailing service,” said Aicha Evans, Zoox Chief Executive Officer. “We are transforming the rider experience to provide superior mobility-as-a-service for cities. And as we see the alarming statistics around carbon emissions and traffic accidents, it’s more important than ever that we build a sustainable, safe solution that allows riders to get from point A to point B.”
Zoox’s robo-taxi is still a prototype and it remains to be seen just how far away it is from mass manufacture, as it is not yet known if current hardware and software operates safely. Expectations of profitability after mass production and a mass-rollout in U.S. cities is another big question. But that’s the ultimate goal for Zoox, with Amazon’s backing.
The race to field the first mass-market robo-taxi is now showing signs of progress. This comes as developers struggle to come up with a business model that shows such machines to be profitable given the high costs of development and construction against a gig economy human driver. This is perhaps the biggest hurdle facing Level 4 and Level 5 robo-taxis at the moment: How do you keep build costs down to a point where the driver-less taxi can make money?
The processing hardware alone has already proven to be a stumbling block of sorts, requiring both money and space in the vehicle itself, with trunks of prototypes taken up by computers while pricey sensors dot the roof. It’s difficult enough to convert a production sedan to a Level 4 prototype, but what about building an entirely new vehicle from scratch? One that features a large battery, electric motors, and sensor hardware all around? That’s a mass manufacturing effort, the likes of which have not been attempted quite yet.
It’s one thing to build a money-no-object prototype, and quite another to mass produce robo-taxis and actually deploy them in a way in which they can turn a profit. Deployment in cities but lack of actual profit is perhaps achievable today on a purely technological level, but that’s not what developers and their backers are after.
Will this be the way we’ll get around in large cities five or ten years from now, with these carriage-style taxis becoming a sight as common as Checker Marathon and Ford Crown Victoria cabs were decades before?
Zoox has plans to deploy these in a number of cities, including San Francisco, as a part of a wider eventual deployment. But it’s clear that a wider roll-out depends on a few other things and will rely upon individual state laws regarding autonomous vehicles. So our robo-taxi future is likely to arrive earlier in some parts of the country than in others. The point at which it may actually replace human drivers currently working in the gig economy is still far on the horizon.
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