Amazon-owned Zoox driving its autonomous vehicle on public roads in California

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Amazon-owned Zoox has started operating its autonomous vehicle on a mile-long route between two of the company’s buildings on a public road in Foster City, California.

The Zoox robotaxi is “capable of transporting up to four people at a time … traveling up to 35 mph and handling left-hand and right-hand turns, bidirectional turns, traffic lights, cyclists, pedestrians, vehicles and other road agents on this route,” Zoox Inc. noted in an announcement.

The trial run of the Zoox robotaxi as an employee shuttle was completed on Saturday and has begun regular use for Zoox employees. While Zoox has a California Department of Motor Vehicles permit to operate on public roads, it’s not certified for commercial use.

“Becoming the first company to operate a purpose-built robotaxi with passengers on open public roads in California is a significant milestone in not only Zoox’s journey, but for the autonomous vehicle industry at large,” said Zoox CEO Aicha Evans.

Zoox is set apart from some other autonomous vehicle prototypes by its avoidance of manual control mechanisms, including a lack of steering wheel and pedals.

“The founding premise of Zoox was that the best way to advance transportation and increase safety on our roadways was to reimagine the full mobility experience. That means going beyond retrofitting today’s passenger vehicles with autonomous technology,” Zoox Chief Technology Officer Jesse Levinson noted.

Ms. Evans and Mr. Levinson were part of the first trial run for the robotaxi.

“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,” Mr. Levinson said in a blog on the Zoox website.

Zoox emphasized that it’s the first firm to self-certify compliance with federal automobile safety standards. As such, according to CNBC, the company is not seeking a waiver to operate on public roads.

Zoox also avoids reporting disengagements, which are instances in the testing of autonomous vehicles where the system stops autonomous operation or a human operator has to take over.

Instead, the Zoox vehicle stays in control with the aid of remote guidance by company employees.

“If the vehicle is in a situation where it needs help … we have what’s called a fusion center, with trained guidance operators monitoring the output of the scene and then will give guidance to the vehicle,” Ms. Evans told CNBC.

Guidance includes granting permission for the vehicle to do something, nudging the vehicle toward an alternate trajectory with hints, or in the worst-case scenarios pulling over altogether.

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