Zoox receives first California permit to offer autonomous rides

December 27, 2018 13:41
A concept image of The Boz, Zoox's autonomous bi-directional electric vehicle. The startup recently landed California permit to test self-driving taxi service. Photo: Zoox

Autonomous vehicle technology startup Zoox has recently received a permit to transport public passengers, under a pilot program launched in April by the California Public Utilities Commission.

It marked the first time the California authorities granted permit to a self-driving vehicle technology firm to transport passengers. As of now, 62 companies have permits to test autonomous vehicles, but only one has been allowed to take in public passengers.

"This is a really, really significant milestone as we head towards commercial launch, which we have stated is toward the end of 2020," Bert Kaufman, head of corporate and regulatory affairs at Zoox, told Reuters.

Zoox is testing its software and sensors on conventional vehicles with safety drivers across the San Francisco Bay Area, and will operate a service of fully autonomous battery electric vehicles optimized for ride-sharing in cities, the company said in a press release.

Under the terms of the permit, Zoox will transport members of the public in its autonomous cars for free, keeping the prospect of a profitable business model elusive. Also, each autonomous vehicle has to operate with a certified backup driver behind the wheel, who can take over the vehicle if necessary.

Founded in 2014, California-based Zoox positions itself as a robotics company with an aim to create the full realization of autonomous mobility. The startup has raised US$790 million since founding, according to data from Crunchbase.

This August, Zoox co-founder and CEO Tim Kentley-Klay was fired suddenly by the company’s board, which “chose a path of fear, optimizing for a little money in hand at the expense of profound progress for the universe,” as Kentley-Klay described in a Twitter post shortly after the news.

Before firing Kentley-Kay, the company had just closed a massive US$500 million funding round, led by Grok Ventures, at a US$3.2 billion post-money valuation in July.

Carl Bass, who joined as interim director last year, has filled the role on an interim basis, as the search for a new CEO continues.

In March this year, an autonomous test vehicle from ride-hailing giant Uber Technologies struck and killed an Arizona pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona. The incident prompted Arizona authorities to suspend Uber's test drives in the area.

The Uber accident, meanwhile, also triggered a fresh debate on the practical and ethical concerns related to the operation of autonomous vehicles.

A number of large players like Uber and Lyft are working on autonomous vehicles, but the dominant player has been Google's parent company, Alphabet, which began work on the technology a decade ago.

Alphabet’s autonomous vehicle branch, Waymo, received a permit from California authorities to begin driverless testing on public roads in October, according to the company.

However, Reuters noted that many autonomous cars “drive slowly, making jerking movements and hesitating” on the roads. Technology developers are trying to refine their systems and smooth out the rides through road tests.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec 25

Translation by Ben Ng with additional reporting

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Hong Kong Economic Journal