Weekly Brief: Amazon Enters the Driverless Tech Ring

Amazon’s self-driving car start-up, Zoox, received a permit from the State of California last week to test driverless vehicles on public roads without a safety driver behind the wheel.

That last part is an important distinction. A total of 60 companies have permits to test driverless vehicles on public roads in California but only four, including Waymo, Nuro, AutoX and now Zoox, can do so without a safety driver behind the wheel. The permit comes just three months after Amazon purchased Zoox for $1.3Bn. Amazon has made no secret of its determination to usher in an era of tech-powered package delivery, be it with drones buzzing through the air or driverless vehicles zipping from Amazon factories to customers’ front doors. That determination was redoubled during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, when online shopping became a means of survival for many people and the idea of contact-less deliveries grew more appealing.

Zoox, meanwhile, was hemorrhaging money to the tune of $30M a month and was scheduled to run out of cash in July. As recently as 2018, it was valued at $3.2Bn. Amazon bought it for a fraction of that in a straight cash deal to help pump much-needed money into its operations. The new permit with the State of California would never have come along had Amazon not stepped in.

Zoox will have to operate its driverless pilot with some restrictions. It will only be able to test drive two autonomous vehicles without safety drivers. Those vehicles will only be able to operate under fair-weather conditions, on roads with a speed limit up to 45mph and they will have to remain in San Mateo County in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the company is headquartered. Zoox has been testing its vehicles on California roads since 2018 and has a permit to participate in driverless ride-hailing pilots, which begs the question is Amazon is interested in challenging Waymo, GM Cruise, Uber and even Tesla, which is experimenting with its own Tesla Network for ride-hailing?

Speaking of Tesla, another frightening news report broke last week of a Tesla Autopilot ride gone wrong. This time the driver was in Canada, south of Edmonton, where he was cruising upwards of 90mph, while his seat was fully reclined and he was fast asleep. The driver was 20-years-old. When a police officer put on his emergency lights, the surrounding vehicles cleared out of the way, which created an opening for the Tesla Model S, so it sped up even faster over the speed limit. Thankfully, there was no crash and no one was injured.

Tesla tells drivers that they need to remain vigilant when Autopilot is engaged but it doesn’t use driver monitoring systems, in the way that Cadillac Super Cruise does, to ensure that drivers actually pay attention. Three weeks ago I wrote about how a young man was watching a movie on his smartphone in North Carolina when his Model S slammed into a Sheriff’s car. That was the most recent of 13 Tesla crashes involving Autopilot that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating, some of which have been deadly. These accidents will continue until Elon Musk willingly steps up with a responsible solution or NHTSA forces him to. Don’t hold your breath for either.

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