Much of the attention on electric vehicles focuses on vehicles like the Tesla Model Y, Ford Mustang Mach-E, Porsche Taycan and the like. However, it’s service-oriented vehicles resembling toasters many companies see as the future of the EV.
Zoox, the autonomous vehicle startup purchased by Amazon in June for $1.2 billion, just revealed its self-driving robotaxi designed to carry four people. It’s tough to tell if riders should open a door or get into a slot on the top of the vehicle.
The company describes its new vehicle as “it’s designed for riders, not for drivers.” The company says it has the capacity to build as many as 15,000 vehicles annually at its plant in Fremont, California. The new vehicles being produced are using production-level tooling.
The next step is to begin testing the vehicle in real-world environments, like the streets of San Francisco, said CEO Aicha Evans in a video the company produced about the car. The 18-minute video shows the vehicle’s development on closed courses as well as navigating streets in a restricted area last week in San Francisco, in and around Coit Tower and near the Fairmont Hotel.
Designed to accommodate four people with automatic sliding doors for entry and exit of the vehicle, the vehicle is designed as a people hauler, which certainly seems to be the future of the autonomous electric vehicles. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has been touting this possibility for years, although really providing specifics for his vehicle of hundreds of thousands of Tesla robotaxis roaming the planet, earning money for the vehicle’s owners and the EV maker.
Additionally, ride-hailing services like Uber, Lyft and Waymo have also invested heavily in autonomous vehicle development as the elimination of the driver in their service would cut out a significant cost, ultimately pushing these services from the red into the black on their profit-and-loss statements.
However, what appears to be inescapable in all of these efforts is the toaster. The new Zoox offering isn’t alone in using this design. The Cruise Origin, which is going to be built by General Motors, is also sporting the design, albeit a bit larger, holding six passengers.
Canoo, which recently went public, sports a similar design with room for seven passengers when used for shuttle-style transportation. The company has offered up some designs for its interior that suggest it could be used for family transportation as well. No driver on that one either.
Toyota is even in on the act with its e-Palette, which CEO Akio Toyoda described as a “multi-purpose moving space.” When it debuted in early 2018, the company said it planned to employ a fleet of them – autonomously – to shuttle athletes around Tokyo for the 2020 Olympics. Due to the pandemic, the games have been put off a year, which gives the automaker more time to make improvements. It’s even larger than the rest of the competition, with room for as many as 20 people.
The toaster-on-wheels shape is born out of necessity, engineers at all of the vehicle makers have noted. First, it allows for the easiest access for passengers. Nearly all of the rectangles on wheels use automatic sliding doors for ingress and egress. They’re also low to the ground, making it easier for older riders or those with limited mobility, such as wheelchair users, to get in and out of the vehicle.
However, the demands placed before the vehicles also determined the design. The shape allows for the makers to place the multitude of cameras plus radar and lidar sensors on each corner of the vehicle, the most advantageous position for them, said Andy Piper, Zoox vice president, Vehicle Development. Additionally, these vehicles are designed to run for long periods of time, meaning they’ll need plenty of batteries and a big, rectangle floor is an ideal way to get them there.
Although there are plenty of “toasters” in the development stage, Zoox, which is also testing its new vehicle in Las Vegas as well, is suggesting it’ll be first to market with its vehicles ready in the middle of 2021. Canoo, Toyota and Origin won’t be far behind though.