Amazon’s Zoox Begins Staff Rides On Public Roads In California

Look mum, no steering wheel! Zoox robotaxis are now being tested on some public roads in California by carrying staff

Amazon’s autonomous vehicle venture Zoox has begun testing of its self-driving robotaxis on some of the roads in California.

Zoox announced on Monday that in an “historic first”, at the weekend it had undertaken the first voyage of its robotaxi “on open public roads. Our employees’ first taste of their new autonomous shuttle service, with dozens of team members enjoying the experience.”

It has been a long time coming. It was back in September 2020 that Zoox received a permit from California state authorities to test self-driving vehicles without a human backup driver, only the fourth company (at the time) to receive such an authorisation.

Amazon’s Zoox robotaxi.
Image credit Zoox

Public testing

That permit allowed Zoox to operate two vehicles without a human driver, following on from an approval (in 2016) that allowed for testing with a backup driver, the state Department of Motor Vehicles said in 2020.

However the firm only received final approval from the California Department of Motor Vehicles last week to begin testing.

Now Zoox has confirmed that for “the first time in history a purpose-built robotaxi – without any manual controls – drove autonomously with passengers. No steering wheel. No pedals. An experience built for riders, not drivers.”

Despite having no steering wheel or pedals, the Zoox vehicles have bidirectional driving capabilities and four-wheel steering, enabling them to change directions without the need to reverse.

Amazon’s Zoox robotaxi.
Image credit Zoox

“Getting to be the world’s first passenger in a robotaxi with no manual controls on open public roads, along with Aicha this past Saturday, was one of the highlights of my life,” said Jesse Levinson, co-founder and CTO.

“But what made me happiest was seeing the beaming smiles on our team members when they completed their rides,” said Levinson. “I can’t wait for everyone to experience that magic.”

“This is an amazing milestone for Zoox and the autonomous vehicle industry as a whole,” added CEO Aicha Evans. “It’s a testament to our vision and the dedication, focus, and hard work of our crew.”

It should be noted that the permit is not for all public roads in California, as the public tests are currently limited to shuttling Zoox staffers on a one-mile public route between two office buildings at the company’s headquarters in Foster City, California, at speeds up to 35 miles an hour.

Other competition

Zoox is currently dealing with a number of competitors, although Zoox says its driverless vehicles meets Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, and so the company is not seeking any waiver to put them into use on public roads.

Competitors include GM’s driverless unit, Cruise, has also developed an autonomous shuttle called Origin which also does not have manual controls.

Cruise and Alphabet’s Waymo last year received approval to roll out their driverless taxi services in California and charge passengers for the rides.

Image credit: Cruise
Image credit: Cruise

Amazon ownership

Amazon bought the nine year old Zoox startup in June 2020 as part of its plans around automated package delivery and ride-hailing.

The company also took part in Aurora Innovation’s $530 million (£409m) funding round in early 2019.

Aurora, founded by Chris Urmson, a former head of Google’s self-driving team, along with former Tesla Autopilot director Sterling Anderson and Carnegie Mellon University robotics professor Drew Bagnell, is one of a number of companies looking to apply self-driving features to long-haul transport.