Zoox, the autonomous vehicle company owned by Amazon, said that its toaster-shaped driverless vehicle without a steering wheel or pedals was approved to drive on public roads with passengers in California. The company celebrated the milestone as the “first time in history a purpose-built robotaxi — without any manual controls — drove autonomously with passengers.”
Zoox is one of dozens of companies currently testing AVs on public roads in the Golden State. And while it trails behind competitors like Waymo and Cruise in the race to commercialize the technology, it is making advancements by introducing a new kind of vehicle to the road — one that lacks traditional controls and could hardly be described as a “car” in the modern sense of the word.
Last week, California’s Department of Motor Vehicles approved a modification to Zoox’s existing testing permit allowing it to test its robotaxi in a “limited area” in Foster City, California, where the company is headquartered.
Zoox is one of dozens of companies currently testing AVs on public roads in the Golden State
But Zoox’s purpose-built robotaxi can hardly travel where ever it wants. According to the DMV, the vehicle is limited to a top speed of 40 mph, can only operate on Saturdays and Sundays during daylight hours, and is prohibited from driving during bad weather.
Still, Zoox is feeling celebratory — which is certainly allowable considering all the dour news about autonomous vehicles lately. Jesse Levinson, founder and CTO of Zoox, provided some more details in a post on Reddit.
According to Levinson, the Zoox vehicle drove a two-mile loop “dozens of times” on open roads with passengers in the vehicle. “Our vehicle never got stuck, paused, or had any issues whatsoever while driving,” he wrote. “As you’d expect on open public roads, we encountered lots of vehicles, pedestrians, bikes, etc. The route has multiple traffic lights, left/right turns, unprotected cross traffic, and speeds up to 35 MPH.”
Levinson also addressed questions about Zoox’s claim to be the first to deploy a purpose-built autonomous vehicle on public roads, considering Google had ferried passengers in its purpose-built Firefly vehicle on open roads more than five years ago.
“Our vehicle never got stuck, paused, or had any issues whatsoever while driving.”
Google’s prototype wasn’t built to comply with federal safety standards, nor could it exceed 25 mph, Levinson said. Firefly “was also never designed for production, as it was clearly a test/research vehicle platform (which Waymo then abandoned),” he added. “In contrast, the Zoox robotaxi complies with the complete set of FMVSS, is fully street-legal, and has a comprehensive set of safety and comfort features for our riders.”
Zoox’s vehicle, which was first unveiled in 2020, is currently testing AVs in Seattle, Las Vegas, and the Bay Area. The company mostly uses Toyota Highlanders retrofitted with sensors and cameras as part of its fleet.
Zoox is one of the few companies that is building its own autonomous vehicle. Cruise, a wholly owned subsidiary of General Motors, is expected to begin mass production of its Origin vehicle later this year.
Zoox, however, contends that it won’t need exemptions because it self-certifies that its vehicles meet current safety standards
Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) require vehicles to have certain traditional controls, like steering wheels and pedals. Automakers who are attempting to build vehicles without these controls, like Cruise and Nuro, have filed petitions with the government for temporary exemptions to these rules so they can mass produce their steering wheel-less vehicles.
Zoox, however, contends that it won’t need exemptions because it self-certifies that its vehicles meet current safety standards. “From the beginning, we challenged ourselves to create a vehicle that would be compliant with FMVSS requirements within the current regulatory structure,” the company wrote in a July 2022 blog post. “We intended to self-certify our purpose-built vehicle without the need for regulatory changes or requesting exemptions.”
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says it is reviewing these claims from Zoox, but has yet to make a determination as to whether the company will need to request an exemption, a spokesperson said (emphasis ours):
NHTSA is aware that Zoox has self-certified the purpose-built Zoox vehicle as meeting all applicable Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. The agency is evaluating the basis for these self-certification claims and, as part of this effort, continues to review information provided by Zoox in response to questions previously posed by the agency.
If vehicles do not comply with all applicable FMVSS, they must generally receive an exemption from NHTSA to operate on public roads.
A Zoox spokesperson declined to comment on the NHTSA statement.
Update February 15th 11:41AM ET: This story has been updated to include a statement from NHTSA, as well as Zoox’s reply.