The autonomous car startup that I once suggested may be showing “vaporware horseshit” has plans to unveil its new robotaxi thing on December 14, but the reveal seems to have been scooped by people who noticed the vehicles during what appears to have been a video shoot in San Francisco.
To Zoox’s credit, the company seems to have leaned into the vaporware horseshit name, and was naming their test mules VH1, VH2, etc. The company has since been bought by Amazon and has been developing their bi-directional, four-wheel-steering transport pod a lot since then.
Here’s what the latest iteration of the Zoox looks like, as captured and tweeted yesterday:
The basic design I actually think is quite good; given the context of the car — autonomous-only, shared-use, that kind of thing — it makes sense for it to be a box on wheels since what really matters in an autonomous vehicle is the interior volume.
I’ve seen other sites — including our own sibling — suggesting it doesn’t appear to be very aerodynamic, but I don’t agree. It absolutely could be quite aerodynamic. Sure, the frontal area is large but remember, aerodynamics isn’t always as simple as what you may think. For example, a Ford Aerostar van (0.39) has a lower coefficient of drag than a Jaguar XJS (0.40).
Besides, this is likely to be an around-town sort of vehicle, and I suspect highway travel isn’t a crucial part of its design brief — though it should technically be able to do so.
The light units look like they can change from headlamps to taillamps, and it looks like there are camera or lidar (or both) units at all four corners.
The design does have some significant issues for an AV, though, most notably the way the wheels form the corners of the vehicle and are covered only by motorcycle-style fenders.
Having moving wheels exposed to that degree in a robotic vehicle designed for dense city driving with cyclists and pedestrians and kids around seems foolishly unforgiving — if you have a big-ass robot that may be moving through or near groups of people, there shouldn’t be prominent exposed moving bits that limbs can contact.
That seems like what we’re seeing here.
I’m curious to see the interior; I suspect it’s a pair of benches at each end, and maybe a side bench on the non-door side if there’s only one side with a door. That would make it, likely, a six- or seven-seater.
If this is for shared use, I’d expect hard-wearing materials, much like bus or subway-style design. This thing is designed for utility and to give off a sense of high-tech whateverishness, and I think it accomplishes that well enough.
I’m also very curious about their claimed autonomy level; something like this would have to be 4 or 5, which would mean it relies on zero input from the people inside, and as such will need to be able to handle failover elegantly if its sensors or other systems are compromised.
I’ve yet to see any AV company’s solution for that, so I’m really interested to see what Zoox’s plan is. If the thing loses cameras or lidar mid-trip, because of mud or bird shit or physical damage, or vandalism in the middle of the chaos of the roads, what’s it going to do? This question is the next big hurdle for AV developers, I think.
I’m excited to see the horseshit no longer be vaporware — the basic design seems pretty good, and I’m curious to learn more.