Amazon’s Zoox to start testing its autonomous vehicles in Seattle

Zoox, a subsidiary of Amazon, has been testing its autonomous L3 vehicles in Las Vegas and the San Francisco Bay Area for more than four years. The company has now announced that it will start testing autonomous vehicles in Seattle – for the first time – this year.

It is also planning to open an office in the Seattle area in 2022 to grow its base of operations and facilities. This will be Zoox’s fourth base and testing site, following San Francisco, Las Vegas, and a headquarters in Foster City, California.

That’s the longer-term vision, but to start, Zoox will deploy a small number of L3 vehicles to get the lay of the land. These all-wheel-drive Toyota Highlanders are outfitted with the company’s sensor technology and autonomous driving software and will have a safety driver to take control of if needed.

Currently, the California-based company is testing vehicles in the relatively dry cities of Las Vegas, San Francisco, and its hometown. Seattle’s infrastructure and driving culture are quite distinct compared to other test sites, but the one thing that makes Seattle so different from Las Vegas and the Bay Area is the rain. The company hopes the Seattle climate will help it prepare the technology for driving in a wider range of environments.

“A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor, and it’s the exact same principle for our technology,” said Kai Wang, director of a prediction at Zoox. “The challenges of the Seattle area will let us hone our software stack and ultimately improve the behavior of our vehicles.”

Zoox’s autonomous vehicle sensors work together to build a picture of their vehicle’s surroundings. Testing these sensors in varied conditions will highlight specific areas to help their systems evolve. The data gathered in the Seattle area will then be used for Zoox’s L3 and L5 fleets, and by the company’s Calibration, Localization, and Mapping, Simultaneously (CLAMS) and Zoox Road Network (ZRN) teams to produce 3D maps of the city that include bike lanes, speed limits, traffic lights, and other features.

While Las Vegas and San Francisco are still the company’s focus for launch, testing in another city will accelerate the pace of learning and iteration everywhere. However, Zoox has said it will only launch its self-driving cars when it can ensure that its “vehicle is significantly safer than human driving,” which could take some time yet.

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