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Zoox's robotaxi is bidirectional and includes more than 100 safety innovations. Photo: Zoox

Vehicles are being reimagined as autonomous, electric, toaster-shaped robotaxis. Now their safety has to be reworked too.

The big picture: There's more to self-driving cars than just removing the steering wheel and pedals. The entire vehicle needs to be redesigned for riders, not drivers, so their safety can be assured even when they're not in control.

  • The federal government has issued guidance but no firm safety regulations to companies developing autonomous vehicles, and Congress has been trying to advance an AV bill since 2017, with no success.
  • For now, a patchwork of state regulations governs the testing and deployment of AVs, and it's up to the AV industry to prove the safety of its vehicles.

Driving the news: Zoox, the San Francisco-based robotaxi startup, is highlighting the safety innovations in its AV as part of a voluntary safety self-assessment submitted this week to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Details: The company says its purpose-built robotaxi, unveiled in December, has more than 100 safety innovations that don't exist in today's conventional cars. The big ones:

The four wheels are independent, so the speed, power and direction of each wheel are individually controlled.

  • That translates into more precise steering and shorter stopping distances, giving the vehicle more time to react.
  • And because the wheels steer independently, the vehicle can maneuver sideways into curbside spaces in a way ordinary cars cannot.
  • It's also bidirectional, meaning there's no front or rear and it never has to make a U-turn. Headlights can become tail lights, and vice versa.

There's no single point of failure. If something goes wrong, backup systems automatically kick in so the vehicle continues operating or is brought to a safe stop.

  • Besides redundant steering and driving controls, there are also two batteries and two motors, but the vehicle can still operate with one battery or one motor.

Riders are equally protected, whether facing forward or backward.

  • Zoox had to design a new array of airbags, including a new "horseshoe" curtain airbag that works in concert with front, rear and side airbags deploying from the ceiling or sides of the vehicle depending on the direction and severity of a crash.
  • The Zoox vehicle won't move if sensors and cameras detect passengers aren't properly wearing seatbelts.

Yes, but: The robotaxi era is still a ways off, and Zoox can't say when its vehicle will be deployed.

  • Waymo was first to operate a robotaxi service, in Arizona, but it's limited. And Cruise recently got permission to carry passengers in California but not as a commercial service.
  • "What people really want to know is, 'When do I leave my building, take out my app, and call a Zoox to go to the store?'" said former NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind, now chief safety innovation officer at Zoox.
  • "That kind of everywhere is 20 to 30 years away."

Go deeper

Sep 15, 2021 - Technology

Snap hires first Global Head of Platform Safety

Photo: Chesnot/Getty Images

Snap Inc. has hired Jacqueline Beauchere, the current chief online safety officer at Microsoft, to be its first-ever global head of platform safety, a spokesperson tells Axios.

Why it matters: The move reflects a growing effort by Snapchat to invest in more initiatives that focus on user safety and wellbeing.

Updated 8 mins ago - Science

This powerful new accelerator looks for keys to the center of atoms

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Nuclear physicists trying to piece together how atoms are built are about to get a powerful new tool.

Why it matters: When the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams begins experiments later this spring, physicists from around the world will use the particle accelerator to better understand the inner workings of atoms that make up all the matter that can be seen in the universe.

Updated 11 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Health: FDA OKs antiviral drug remdesivir for non-hospitalized COVID patients — Walensky: CDC language "pivoting" on "fully vaccinated" — Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Teens and adults missed 37 million vaccinations during COVID — Team USA 100% vaccinated against COVID ahead of Beijing Olympics — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America — Annual COVID vaccine preferable to boosters, says Pfizer CEO.
  3. Politics: Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates — Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults — Beijing officials urge COVID-19 "emergency mode" before Winter Olympics.
  5. Variant tracker