A new breed of self-driving car could kick the autonomous-vehicle industry into a higher gear.

What’s new: Zoox unveiled its first product, an all-electric, driverless taxi designed fully in-house.

How it works: The vehicle has no driver’s seat, steering wheel, or pedals — just four inward-facing passenger seats. It’s capable of driving in either direction and uses lidar, radar, and cameras to guide its navigation and collision avoidance systems. It can go for 16 hours on single charge.

  • The car’s perception system locates itself within a defined driving area and classifies other vehicles, bicyclists, pedestrians and other objects. The vision subsystem mocks up pedestrian skeletons to classify behaviors such as pushing a stroller, looking at a phone, stepping out of a vehicle, and using a hand to signal stop or go.
  • A prediction system extrapolates what surrounding objects will do next, while a planning and control system handles navigation decisions like speed and lane changes.
  • If the vehicle encounters a difficult situation, a remote human operator can step in to, say, suggest a new route or relabel obstacles. Zoox adds these situations to its training simulation to improve the system.

Behind the news: Founded in 2014 and acquired by Amazon in July, Zoox has been road testing its self-driving technology in San Francisco and Las Vegas using cars built by other manufacturers. The company is just one part of Amazon’s self-driving portfolio. The retail giant also has invested in autonomous vehicle makers Aurora and Rivian.

Are we there yet? Despite years of hype and billions of dollars spent on research and development, self-driving cars are a long way from replacing human drivers. So far, they’re considered safe enough only to operate in relatively small, well mapped environments.

  • EasyMile started operating commercially in 2017 and has ferried passengers around airports, college campuses, and business parks in several countries.
  • Waymo last year debuted the first commercial autonomous taxi service, which is available in parts of Phoenix, Arizona.
  • Voyage, which focuses on ferrying passengers in retirement communities, is road testing its driverless G3 robotaxi and plans to release a commercial version by the middle of next year.

Why it matters: Self-driving car companies have pulled back their early, grandiose promises. By proving the technology in constrained environments, they can improve safety on the open road while building trust with the public. With the Amazon juggernaut behind it, Zoox could be a significant milestone on the road to practical vehicular autonomy.

We’re thinking: Zoox’s announcement received a rapturous reception in the press, but the company has only just begun producing vehicles and doesn’t expect to operate commercially until at least 2022.

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