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Since its founding eight years ago, Zoox, a company developing autonomous vehicles (AVs) and now a subsidiary of Amazon, has been working towards its goal of creating a purpose-built autonomous vehicle, with no steering wheel.
While the company isn’t the only AV developer with this goal, Cruise, for example, just started testing its Origin vehicle, which has no steering wheel, it is taking a unique approach to rolling out those vehicles. Zoox has an extensive, recently upgraded testing fleet that is verifying the effectiveness of its autonomous driving technology. This fleet is at work in a few cities, including Seattle, San Francisco and Las Vegas.
“We’ve always wanted to have a service to give you a better ride from A to B, initially focused on dense urban areas,” Zoox’s Director of Studio Engineering Chris Stoffel told The Robot Report. “And in order to do that it requires, we believe, a ground-up product.”
Zoox’s testing fleet isn’t open to the public, and the company doesn’t plan for it to ever be. The fleet solely exists to perfect the company’s driving software before it is rolled out for the public in the company’s purpose-built autonomous vehicle.
“This vehicle is out there to really develop our self-driving technology, to map new locations, and to really ensure that the hardware and software we’re using to self-drive is ready for public groups to view when we bring out our full self-driving vehicle,” Zoox’s Director of Studio Engineering Chris Stoffel told The Robot Report.
This vehicle looks more like a train car than the cars we see on the road now. It has no steering wheel, and no “front seat”, and is instead equipped with rows of seating facing each other. Inside these vehicles, riders can control the music and air from touchscreen control panels near the seats, and check their arrival time, location, and route whenever they want.
The rectangular vehicle has four-wheel steering, giving it the ability to perform precise maneuvers. Because it doesn’t have a driver’s seat, the small vehicle is bidirectional, meaning it can move forward and backward with ease.
With such a uniquely designed vehicle, that can never be operated with a safety driver behind the wheel, Zoox’s testing fleet had to be precisely designed so that the autonomous driving knowledge it gains can be translated onto Zoox’s public-facing vehicles.
Upgrades to Zoox’s testing fleet
With Zoox’s purpose-built AV’s hardware production ready, and the company conducting ongoing testing of the vehicle in a closed testing area, Zoox is working on finalizing its self-driving technology to ensure its vehicle will be ready to hit the roads.
“We’re developing a technology that we want to make sure we can operate as we want to in those edge cases,” Stoffel said. “And in order to do that, we really want to send those helper vehicles out there with the same technology to validate those scenarios and ensure that if we do face an environment or a scenario where the vehicle needs further development, that we have the right technology and the right set up to be able to do that.”
Zoox’s newly upgraded fleet is made up of its L3V7 testing vehicle, upgraded Toyota Highlander Hybrids, which the company calls its L3 fleet. The L3 fleet is retrofitted with the same sensors, in the same locations, as Zoox’s purpose-built AV, which it calls its L5 vehicle. Zoox’s sensor pods are located in the four corners of the vehicle, with each pod having a 270º field of view.
“We’ve basically taken a holistic design approach to updating our L3 vehicles. That exact same hardware that we’re talking about within our self-driving vehicles, which includes our sensor pods, which have three different types of sensors, LiDAR, camera and long-wave infrared, all the sensor cleaning technology, all the production hardware, is now included on our L3 vehicles,” Stoffel said.
It should be noted, while the titles of Zoox’s vehicles are based on the SAE self-driving vehicle levels, they don’t directly correlate with the 5 SAE levels. While the L5 robotaxi is L5 capable, according to the company, due to the nature of needing to operate within a geofenced location, it technically operates as an L4 vehicle with L5 capability.
One of the only differences between the sensors in the L3V7 testing vehicles and the L5 is in the placement of the radars, Stoffel said, which are in small black boxes on the outside of the vehicle. These sensors aren’t visible in the L5, but because of the size difference between the two vehicles, they needed to be placed on the outside of the L3V7.
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Like Zoox’s L5 vehicles, the L3V7s are equipped with LUX (light) and VOX (sound) hardware. This hardware is intended to help close the communication gap between autonomous vehicles and human drivers on the road. Using light signals and sounds to communicate with pedestrians and other drivers in ways that autonomous vehicles typically struggle with.
“Sound is probably predominantly the one we use the most, because it’s a little more universal, it doesn’t matter whether it’s daytime or nighttime,” Stoffel said. “You can imagine someone who may be a distracted pedestrian who’s crossing the street, maybe they’re jaywalking. Instead of just honking a loud horn, which disturbs them, it disturbs the person inside our vehicle and it disturbs everyone outside the vehicle as well, we can design a sound to just get their attention with more like a chirp or a nice sound that isn’t disturbing to everyone else.”
According to Stoffel, the LUX and VOX hardware allows the vehicle to navigate scenarios like these less awkwardly than previous testing vehicles, while also causing less confusion for other drivers and pedestrians.
The upgraded L3V7 vehicles are also easier to produce than the previous testing vehicles, as Zoox plans to ramp up testing as the company grows.
“As we’re growing as a company, we’re going to have more and more of these vehicles. And so we wanted to update the design to manufacture at scale, so that we can produce more of them in a shorter amount of time with more consistency,” Stoffel said.
While the L3V7 vehicles were designed, overall, to better match Zoox’s L5 vehicles, the L5 vehicles themselves were designed with information gathered from the company’s previous testing fleet. This is how the company has refined its technology and design over the years.
Zoox also upgraded the look of its latest testing vehicles. While the past ones were typically simple and black, the new vehicles have a much more colorful color palette. Zoox hopes this more recognizable design choice will help the vehicles to stand out as its development vehicles, and help build trust in Zoox vehicles with the public.
While the company hasn’t given any public details on when it plans for its L5 vehicles to hit the road, the company seems to be pivoting to a more public-facing stage of its development, which means we could be seeing the L5 on roads sooner rather than later.