NHTSA Launches Investigation Into Amazon’s Self-Driving Zoox Division

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is looking into the Amazon-owned Zoox after two of its robotaxis were involved in crashes. The vehicles in question were effectively faulted with brake checking motorcycles. The autonomous cabs reportedly stopped abruptly and were rear-ended by the bikes.

According to Reuters, a preliminary evaluation was launched on Monday and encompasses roughly 500 vehicles equipped with the same Zoox Automated Driving System that was equipped to the Toyota Highlanders involved in the crash. Details about the crash are limited beyond it being a braking incident where the riders received minor injuries after colliding with the rear of the robotaxis.

From Reuters:

In March, Zoox said it was expanding its vehicle testing in California and Nevada to include a wider area, higher speeds and nighttime driving, as it competes with Alphabet's Waymo robotaxis. Amazon acquired Zoox in 2020 for $1.3 billion.
NHTSA said both crashes occurred during daytime lighting conditions and within the operational design limits of the Zoox system. NHTSA said its initial investigation confirmed "each of the Zoox vehicles was operating with the ADS engaged in the moments leading up to each collision."
The investigation will evaluate the Zoox Automated Driving System performance particularly relating to the collisions as well as "the behavior in crosswalks around vulnerable road users, and in other similar rear-end collision scenarios."

Automated test vehicles have had trouble with this for a while. One of the first complaints leveled at Waymo vehicles was that they would stop abruptly when confused. Similar criticisms were leveled at Cruise AVs before other roadway incidents became higher profile. But one does wonder what exactly was going on in the Zoox instances, as the person who strikes the rear of another vehicle is typically the one held accountable in most legal cases. The logic here is that they could have increased their following distance and should always be prepared to stop in the event of an emergency.

While that doesn’t assume any guilt on the part of the bikers, one does wonder exactly what they were doing in the moments leading up to the crash.

As someone who has a lot of seat time on motorcycles, your author knows that the braking advantage between automobiles and motorcycles can vary wildly. One would think that a bike would be quicker to stop thanks to having far-less mass to cope with and often playing host to stickier tires and larger brakes in relation to its overall size. But cars have a much larger contact patch with the pavement thanks to boasting more wheels. This helps trump the additional inertia automobiles need to overcome to stop. In many cases, a high-performance automobile will have superior braking performance at the limit. But the average motorcycle tends to be at least as good at stopping as most mainstream automobiles, with performance bikes often needing less distance overall to come to a halt.

The real advantage for four-wheeled vehicles comes by way of the operator having less to do during a hard stop. Drivers need only to apply the brake (and the clutch pedal if they’re using a manual transmission) when they need to halt in a hurry. By contrast, a motorcycle rider needs to modulate the front and rear brakes independently using both their right foot and hand in a manner that wouldn’t unsettle the bike while also applying the clutch with their left hand. Riders actually have to carefully balance what their entire body is doing to ensure good contact with the road in order to maximize braking performance.

For an experienced rider, this can be done on instinct. But newer riders, and even experts with less time on a specific bike, won’t have worked out the magic formula to get the most out of their brakes — thereby creating longer braking distances than the motorcycle is mechanically capable of achieving. This is actually one of the first things a reputable motorcycle safety course will teach riders, adding that they should always leave themselves an exit vector as a last resort.

That’s a long-winded way of suggesting that the Zoox-equipped Highlanders might not be the only ones that mucked up here. But we won’t know until more details of the incident are made public.

At any rate, this isn’t the first time Zoox has been under the regulatory microscope. In 2023, the NHTSA also opened an investigation into the self-certification process used by the company in 2022. The concern was that the company was fielding vehicles without traditional driving controls and that technically violated Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS). That probe is currently pending as the NHTSA attempts to verify if Zoox’s "certification basis depended upon unilaterally developed test procedures or determinations that certain standards were inapplicable due to the unique configuration of the vehicle."

Frankly, everything about autonomous test mules (and even some of the new driving aids that are becoming standard equipment) seems like a legal nightmare. Legislators and even some government regulators seem to have little understanding of how these systems function, let alone the vast differences between the functionality of what’s on offer from various companies.

[Image: Sundry Photography/Shutterstock]

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Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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  • MaintenanceCosts "But your author does wonder what the maintenance routine is going to be like on an Italian-German supercar that plays host to a high-revving engine, battery pack, and several electric motors."Probably not much different from the maintenance routine of any other Italian-German supercar with a high-revving engine.
  • 28-Cars-Later "The unions" need to not be the UAW and maybe there's a shot. Maybe.
  • 2manyvettes I had a Cougar of similar vintage that I bought from my late mother in law. It did not suffer the issues mentioned in this article, but being a Minnesota car it did have some weird issues, like a rusted brake line.(!) I do not remember the mileage of the vehicle, but it left my driveway when the transmission started making unwelcome noises. I traded it for a much newer Ford Fusion that served my daughter well until she finished college.
  • TheEndlessEnigma Couple of questions: 1) who will be the service partner for these when Rivian goes Tits Up? 2) What happens with software/operating system support when Rivia goes Tits Up? 3) What happens to the lease when Rivian goes Tits up?
  • Richard I loved these cars, I was blessed to own three. My first a red beauty 86. My second was an 87, 2+2, with digital everything. My third an 87, it had been ridden pretty hard when I got it but it served me well for several years. The first two I loved so much. Unfortunately they had fuel injection issue causing them to basically burst into flames. My son was with me at 10 years old when first one went up. I'm holding no grudges. Nissan gave me 1600$ for first one after jumping thru hoops for 3 years. I didn't bother trying with the second. Just wondering if anyone else had similar experience. I still love those cars.