March 5, 2021

First glimpse of Amazon’s new robotaxi: Zoox autonomous vehicle spotted during video shoot

Isn’t it always the urban video shoot that spoils the big car reveal?

Zoox, the self-driving taxi company acquired by Amazon earlier this year for more than $ 1 billion, has been teasing an unveiling of its vehicle next week, on Dec. 14, as you can see in the video above.

But it turns out it’s tough to keep a secret in public, even on streets emptied by the pandemic. The car was photographed outside the Fairmont San Francisco hotel this weekend as crews captured footage. Pictures were posted on Reddit and Twitter.

At least two vehicles were on the scene, looking at the background of one of the pictures posted by Christian Claus on Twitter. They sported the “ZOOX” logo and license plate, and the “push me, pull you” configuration expected to be a signature element of the Zoox design. The vehicle operates the same in either direction, with no reverse, effectively. The high cost of developing the vehicle with this approach contributed to a financial crunch at the company that is reported to have precipitated the sale to Amazon.

Passengers face each other, and there’s no driver’s seat, because there’s no driver.

Analyzing the images on Forbes, transportation writer Brad Templeton observes that the boxy design is similar to vehicles from competitors such as Cruise and EasyMile. However, he notes that the LIDAR sensors that map the vehicle’s surroundings are placed on mounts at the corners, sticking out in a way that would eliminate blind spots.

Based on the appearance, it might look like the vehicle could deliver packages. That could still be a possibility in the future, potentially in a hybrid scenario, delivering both packages and people. (As Brad Stone writes about Amazon in “The Everything Store,”The answer to almost every conceivable question about the future of this company is ultimately“ yes. ”)

But in announcing the acquisition, Amazon made it clear that Zoox would be sticking to its plan to create autonomous passenger vehicles, at least at first.

“Zoox is working to imagine, invent, and design a world-class autonomous ride-hailing experience,” said Jeff Wilke, Amazon’s outgoing Worldwide Consumer CEO, at the time. “Like Amazon, Zoox is passionate about innovation and about its customers, and we’re excited to help the talented Zoox team to bring their vision to reality in the years ahead.”

That puts the Seattle company in direct competition with Uber and Lyft as the ride-hailing giants develop their own autonomous vehicles.

Zoox CEO Aicha Evans was previously Intel’s chief strategy officer. (Village Global Photo, via Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0.)

In announcing the acquisition in June, Amazon said that Zoox would operate as a standalone business, led by CEO Aicha Evans and co-founder and CTO Jesse Levinson. That’s still the case, but Business Insider reported in October that Evans is reporting to Amazon Alexa and Echo chief Dave Limp. The structure is similar to the way Amazon’s Ring subsidiary operates, creating closer connections to Amazon’s devices and services business and further separating Zoox from the logistics and delivery side of the house.

The acquisition of Zoox is the latest addition to Amazon’s autonomous robotic fleet, along with its drones, warehouse bots and Scout mini delivery vehicles.

GeekWire contributing writer Tim Ellis recently spotted a rolling Amazon robot mapping the sidewalks in Everett, Wash., North of Seattle, presumably for the Scout initiative. Given all of the real-time road scanning that Zoox will be doing with the LIDAR on its vehicles, it’s easy to picture many of these initiatives converging inside the company at some point.