In context: Amazon-owned Zoox has been testing autonomous vehicles in Las Vegas and the Bay Area for four years, long before the retail giant bought the company. The tests helped Zoox better understand how its vehicles behave in these environments, but other areas with vastly different climates could be equally as important to study.
To improve the capabilities of Zoox's L3 autonomous vehicles (standard cars equipped with software and hardware for autonomous driving), the company will run tests in Seattle. Compared to the other test locations, Seattle's infrastructure and driving culture are quite distinctive, but the one thing that makes Seattle so different from Las Vegas and the Bay Area is the rain.
Standard cars tend to "fight" against adverse weather with windshield wipers and defrosters, but Zoox cars will do more than just that. Zoox L3 vehicles have "special hardware" built into its sensor architecture to remove water and debris, and considering how often it rains in Seattle, it should be easier to test it.
During an initial phase, Zoox will be deploying "a small number" of L3 Toyota Highlanders throughout Seattle to overview the city, providing the data needed to adapt the autonomous system to the area. This data will then be used by the CLAMS (calibration, localization, and mapping, simultaneously) and ZRN (Zoox road network) teams to create a map of the city, including bike lanes, speed limits, traffic lights, and more.
Once completed, the map will allow Zoox's L5 vehicles, like its robotaxi and other purpose-built vehicles, to get to work as they're deployed in the city.
"A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor, and it's the exact same principle for our technology," said Kai Wang, director of the prediction division at Zoox. "The challenges of Seattle will let us hone our software stack and ultimately improve the behavior of our vehicles."
Zoox is also planning to open offices in Seattle during 2022 for a total of four offices across the US (the others are in San Francisco, Las Vegas and Foster City). The Seattle office will allow the company to accelerate the development of its system ahead of its eventual launch. However, Zoox stated it will only launch its autonomous cars when it can ensure that its "vehicle is meaningfully safer than human driving," so that might still take some time.