Amazon’s Zoox will test its autonomous vehicles on Seattle’s rainy streets

Amazon’s Zoox will test its autonomous vehicles on Seattle’s rainy streets

Zoox, the autonomous vehicle company owned by Amazon, said it will test its vehicles on the hilly, rain-drenched streets of Seattle. The company also plans on opening an office there in 2022.

Seattle will be the third city to host Zoox’s autonomous vehicles, after San Francisco and Las Vegas. The company said it will deploy a small number of vehicles to “get the lay of the land” before deciding how to expand its operations there.

“We’re excited to be testing in Seattle. The data we’re gathering will be invaluable for the continued development of our AI stack,” said Jesse Levinson, CTO and co-founder of Zoox, in a statement.

Zoox will use Toyota Highlander SUVs retrofitted with sensors and computer hardware to drive autonomously. The company is also building its own vehicle, which looks like an oversized toaster on wheels, lacks typical controls like a steering wheel and pedals, and is designed to be bidirectional, meaning it can travel in either direction.

A spokesperson for the company wouldn’t disclose how many employees will be based in Seattle, but she did say that Zoox has more than 1,300 employees and a goal of creating more than 450 jobs in 2021.

Seattle is not a hot bed of autonomous vehicle testing, but it has seen its fair share of robot cars. Waymo, a sister company to Google and subsidiary of Alphabet, tested its vehicles in Kirkland, Washington, a suburban area to the east of Seattle across Lake Washington. Like Zoox, Waymo cited the city’s wet conditions as ideal for testing autonomous vehicles.

Autonomous vehicles have experienced difficulty “seeing” in inclement weather such as rain or fog. The car’s sensors, like cameras and lidar, can be blocked by snow, ice, or torrential downpours, and their ability to “read” road signs and markings can be impaired.

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