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Zoox blurs line between workers and crash test dummies in robo-taxi trial

Amazon-owned biz puts its staff first

Amazon's robo-taxi division Zoox will be using employees as guinea pigs after the company completed the first trials of its driverless vehicle on public roads.

Zoox, acquired by Amazon in 2020 for $1.3 billion, announced that over the weekend, its bug-shaped robo-taxi had taken to the open road navigating a one-mile stretch connecting its two main buildings at its headquarters in Foster City, California. The company now plans to expand its service to full-time employees traveling between offices.

The driver-free design biz claims [PDF] this is the first time that an autonomous, purpose built, vehicle has regularly driven on public roads without a safety driver. However, the keyword here appears to be "purpose built" because most of the other companies building taxis that operate on public streets — Waymo for example — are using modified street vehicles.

The company's vehicles were designed from the ground up for driverless operation. As such, the cabs lack many of the features you'd find in a typical vehicle, like a steering wheel, gear shift, accelerator, or brake pedal. By stripping out these amenities, Zoox says it can cram in up to four people.

It also means that just like the Johnny Cabs from Total Recall, there's no way for Arnold — or anyone else for that matter — to take control and go for a joyride.

The company says the vehicle can travel at speeds up to 35MPH while navigating left and right-hand turns, traffic lights, cyclists, vehicles, and other road users.

Notably missing from the list of capabilities are roundabouts, which are confusing for many human drivers, particularly in large chunks of the US. In an email, a Zoox spokesperson told The Register that while the employee shuttle route doesn't include a roundabout on its short route, the company is exploring several real-world scenarios involving the circular intersections.

This weekend's trial may have been a success, but the company isn't ready to open its robo-taxis up to the rest of the Bay Area just yet. Zoox is, however, happy to pack four employees at a time into its autonomous people movers and send them trundling down the road. We're told that while the service will be open to all full-time employees, it won't be mandatory.

While this might sound like one of the more extreme cases of Silicon Valley dogfooding, according to Zoox this is part of staying in compliance with California DMV permits. As the robo-taxi evolves and additional government clearances are obtained, the company plans to open its cabs up to the general public. ®

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