US Safety Agency investigates Amazon’s Zoox after collisions with self-driving taxis

In a surprising and complicated development, the federal US government’s highway safety agency has officially launched an investigation into Amazon’s self-driving robotaxi service, Zoox. This follows an incident in which two of the company’s autonomous vehicles spontaneously braked abruptly, resulting in collisions with following motorcyclists.

Both incidents occurred in bright daylight and involved Toyota Highlander SUVs equipped with Zoox’s state-of-the-art self-driving technology. It is notable that both Amazon vehicles were operating independently in their autonomous mode at the time of these incidents. Documented reports stated that one incident resulted in minor injuries to a motorcyclist, while a Zoox driver suffered minor injuries in the other accident respectively. These unfortunate accidents occurred last month; one took place on the busy streets of San Francisco, while the other took place in Spring Valley, Nevada.

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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has emphasized that the primary purpose of the investigation is to examine the accuracy and robustness of Zoox’s automated driving system during the incidents. In addition, the system will scrutinize behavior around zebra crossings, pedestrian zones and other areas with potentially vulnerable road users.

In a strong but cooperative response, Zoox stated that it is committed to working dutifully with NHTSA to address all questions and concerns. The company emphasized the critical importance of transparency and cooperation with regulators. The company also pointed out that there was a human safety driver on board the vehicles at all times during all its operations, underscoring its focus on safety.

Zoox had dutifully reported these accidents as stipulated in a directive issued to automated vehicle companies in 2021. Tech giant Amazon strengthened its interests in autonomous vehicle technology by acquiring Zoox in June 2020 for a sum that industry analysts said would exceed $1 billion.

Zoox, based in Foster City, California, had made headlines earlier in 2023 when it successfully transported employees autonomously between two of its buildings via its funky-looking four-person shuttles. This shuttle service will remain exclusive to company employees, but industry forecasts indicate that Amazon will use the Zoox system for autonomous package delivery in the future.

Zoox’s innovative shuttles have no steering wheel or pedals, while the carriage-style interior consists of two bench seats facing each other. Although the compact frame is a foot shorter than a standard Mini Cooper, these futuristic vehicles can reach speeds of up to 120 kilometers per hour. However, for safety reasons, the operating speed on public roads is limited to 35 miles per hour.

All of this comes at a time when Zoox is already under federal investigation by the NHTSA, which launched a separate investigation in March 2022 into the company’s claim that it meets all federal automotive safety standards. The agency stated that it would further investigate whether Zoox had applied its own testing procedures to validate certain federal standards, which may not be valid due to the unique configuration of its robotaxis.