Why passengers might actually feel safe in Zoox self-driving cars

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Instead of turning a traditional car into an autonomous one, the Amazon-owned self-driving car service Zoox has created its own type of autonomous vehicle without a steering wheel or front seat. Redesigning a car from the ground up also means redesigning car safety features. 

On Tuesday, the San Francisco-based company released its first (voluntary) safety report since revealing its electric robotaxi in December. The report highlights what the company considers more than 100 safety features not found in regular (human-driven, conventional) vehicles. 

Dr. Mark Rosekind, Zoox’s chief safety innovation officer, broke down the key features into three categories in a recent call: driving control, redundancy (or back up in case of failure), and rider protection. Zoox is focused on preventing crashes and incidents, but it’s also preparing for when things do go wrong once its ride-hailing service is on the road. (The vehicles have not started picking up riders and are still in testing.)

“We make a big deal in the report in our belief that we want this industry to become (about) proactive safety,” Rosekind said.

Most noticeably there’s no front or back of the Zoox vehicle. Instead the bidirectional box has double the drive trains, steering controls, electric motors, and batteries, much like in aviation where back-up systems are always available.

Because there’s no front or back side, the vehicle never has to make a U-turn or other more dangerous maneuvers. It can pull in and out of parking spots, and switches its lighting based on direction of travel. 

Another advantage of not being another minivan converted into an autonomous taxi? There aren’t certain seats, say the front or middle back seat, with more hazards or risks, like a dashboard to hit your head. Sit anywhere in the box-like cabin and that seat has the same protections as the others. As Rosekind said, “We designed the vehicle so it’s the same level of safety protection in any seat.”

The airbags, in a horseshoe formation around passengers, are also “smarter” with sensors that detect direction and velocity in a crash. So they won’t set off every airbag; in certain instances only protection from necessary parts of the car will deploy. 

A new airbag system.

A new airbag system.

If you don’t put on your seatbelt in a conventional car, it will likely beep incessantly, but you can still drive. Not in a Zoox. Sensors on the seat, buckle, and even strap know if you’re properly belted and won’t let the vehicle operate until you’re safely seated.

Strap in.

Strap in.

Rosekind, a former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration administrator, hopes these new safety designs make it beyond autonomous vehicles. “This new arena of autonomous mobility brings new safety innovations that could be incorporated into other vehicles on the road,” he said.

Maybe one day your minivan will also have true seatbelt detection.


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