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Amazon-Backed Company Unveils Next-Gen Driverless Taxi

Zoox, the maker of a bidirectional autonomous taxi backed by the Internet retailer Amazon, unveiled the latest iteration of its driverless taxi earlier this week in Foster City, Calif.

The Zoox L5 Fully Autonomous, All-electric Robotaxi in San Francisco
Zoox L5 Fully Autonomous, All-electric Robotaxi
Courtesy Zoox
(TNS) — The boxy vehicle looks more like a toy than any car you've ever seen on the road. It's bidirectional, meaning it can drive frontwards or backwards with equal ease. Doors on each side slide open to reveal bench seats for four people facing each other — and no steering wheel or other manual controls.

It's a next-generation robot taxi from Foster City's Zoox, which unveiled the cars on Monday. Founded in 2014, Zoox is now owned by Amazon, which bought it in June for $1.2 billion.

"Our vehicle is actually functional and driving in real urban environments, not just in the concept phase," said Jesse Levinson, Zoox chief technology officer and founder. The company showed off a video of the car navigating streets last week in San Francisco where it got a permit from the city to close a couple of blocks outside Coit Tower and near the Fairmont Hotel for the short demonstration.

Zoox also operates the new cars, which are a distinctive color it calls aloe green, on a test track at the former Altamont Raceway Park in Tracy. The company has already manufactured dozens of the vehicles at a plant in Fremont that has capacity to produce 10,000 to 15,000 a year, he said.

The all-electric cars have enough battery power to last 16 continuous hours. They can run up to 75 mph. At 12 feet long, they are three feet shorter than a typical compact sedan, and are also taller. Zoox said the cars incorporate more than 100 safety innovations beyond what conventional cars offer.

Ever since Amazon bought Zoox, observers have wondered whether the e-commerce behemoth will use robot cars to deliver packages. But Levinson said robot taxis remain Zoox's goal.

"When everyone heard the two words 'Amazon' and 'Zoox,' that's the first place their mind jumps to," he said. "Amazon is incredibly excited about the opportunity to move people around cities, because that's arguably a larger market. They and we are not pivoting to package delivery, we're focused on moving people."

Besides the next-generation cars, Zoox is testing about 50 Toyota Highlanders equipped with autonomous controls on public roads in California, primarily in San Francisco, as well as in Las Vegas. It does that testing with a safety driver behind the wheel, although it got a permit from the California Department of Motor Vehicles to test without a safety driver. The company has not yet said when it will do so.

Rival Cruise last week said it is now testing five retrofitted Chevy Bolts in San Francisco without backup drivers behind the wheel, although they remain in the navigator's seat. Cruise, which is majority-owned by General Motors, last year unveiled a next-gen robot taxi it calls the Origin. Similar to the Zoox car, it is boxy, has sliding side doors and lacks manual controls.

Many of the dozens of companies racing to develop robot cars have equipped today's cars with roof racks bristling with sensors.

"We think there's a better way to solve autonomous vehicles than retrofitting existing cars," Levinson said.

San Francisco and Las Vegas are the first two target markets for Zoox's robot taxis.

When will someone be able to hail a Zoox robocab?

"Sooner than you think, but not next year," Levinson said.

©2020 the San Francisco Chronicle, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.