NHTSA Probes Zoox Self-Certification Process
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has said it’s investigating exactly how Zoox managed to certify its autonomous vehicles for use on public roads. Though the agency may want to take a look in the mirror after issuing lax regulations on what companies are allowed to publicly test.
In 2017, the NHTSA released updated guidance for automakers hoping to manufacture self-driving cars. While the safety framework sounded very technical and robust, the reality was that it was intentionally designed to eliminate red tape that might prohibit automakers from fielding test vehicles on public roads. Officials claimed to be operating under the assumption that giving the industry more leeway would result in quicker development schedules and ultimately advanced driving technologies that would save lives. The stated fear was that, by over-regulating a burgeoning technology, the government might actually stifle important breakthroughs.
However, hindsight is 20/20 and has shown that’s not how things have played out. The relevant systems failed to mature along the promised timelines and now seem to be languishing in development hell. Per capita traffic fatalities have also increased dramatically these last few years despite peripheral safety tech (e.g. automatic emergency braking) having become commonplace.
That’s not to suggest there aren’t still interesting test programs. For example, Waymo seems to be capable of operating a mostly functional taxi service in Arizona. But victories like these tend to be isolated, limited in scope, and are currently surrounded by companies offloading earlier investments into startups focused on developing artificial intelligence or the accompanying hardware that would allow vehicles to drive themselves. As it turned out, designing a vehicle that can effectively drive itself around turned out to be a monumental task.
Some of this has undermined the NHTSA’s credibility and the agency looks eager to turn around its image. Though there are limits to what it can do since there aren’t many hard and fast laws surrounding autonomous technology. It has instead been focusing on the misleading language used to market Tesla’s Enhanced Autopilot and the misnomer that is the brand’s “Full Self-Driving” suite.
The situation with Zoox is a little different, however.
Purchased by Amazon in 2020 for $1.3 billion, Zoox offers small shuttles that follow a predetermined route. But regulators are now upset that they lack the necessary hardware defined by Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS). By not equipping vehicles with traditional controls (e.g. steering wheels), regulators have suggested that the company is not in compliance with U.S. law. Meanwhile, Zoox has remained adamant that regulators already approved its vehicles for testing on public roads and it would very much like to expand the business.
In February of 2023, the NHTSA confirmed with Automotive News that it had launched an investigation into "self-certification claims" made by Zoox shortly after it launched robotaxis on public roads. The point of the probe is to determine whether or not the company complied with its legal obligations – vague as they might have been.
Things appear to have ramped up since then, with NHTSA spokesperson Veronica Morales issuing statements on Monday that the probe would allow the agency to "further examine the process and technical data on which Zoox relied when certifying that a passenger vehicle it had produced met all applicable Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards."
From Automotive News:
"In particular," she added, "NHTSA will consider the extent to which 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."
Zoox certified in June 2022 that its robotaxi met all applicable federal safety standards. In September, NHTSA ordered Zoox to answer certain questions about its basis for certifying the vehicle. Zoox responded to the agency's order in November, according to a NHTSA document.
Christopher Nalevanko, Zoox's general counsel, said in a statement that the company remains confident in its self-certification process and data and that it is committed to working closely with NHTSA.
"Safety is foundational to Zoox. Given we are the first in the industry to self-certify a purpose-built robotaxi to the FMVSS, this is an expected next step for our regulatory journey," he said in the statement. "As you'll see in NHTSA's request, there are no concerns, violations or accusations made by NHTSA regarding Zoox. This is a request to gain an additional level of details and information on the self-certification tests Zoox performed, which have met or exceeded applicable FMVSS performance requirements."
While manufacturers are allowed to self-certify, the NHTSA has said it may jump in to decide whether they conform with the relevant safety standards. Vehicles aren’t technically even required to adhere to FMVSS rules if they can get an exemption and the relevant permits – things Zoox said it managed to acquire from California’s Department of Motor Vehicles.
But the NHTSA maintains that no-such exemption was requested on a federal basis.
Right now, the company doesn’t see itself as having done anything wrong, as its entire fleet reportedly includes a single test vehicle that shuttles Zoox employees between offices. We’ve also seen other businesses offering similarly designed shuttles utilized more broadly without incurring regulatory attention.
Nalevanko has said the company's self-certification tests "met or exceeded applicable (federal) performance requirements. We are committed to working closely with NHTSA on the questions they have, and we remain confident in our self-certification process and data."
However, Chief Executive Aicha Evans has declined to provide a timeline for any commercial launch of Zoox vehicles. This is undoubtedly because they’ll need additional government clearances and probably more development time before those shuttles would be useful outside of a small campus environment.
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Zoox is operating test vehicles in downtown Seattle—but they are not the vehicles described here; they are ordinary Toyota hybrids with the normal driver controls and large amounts of test hardware mounted to them. It's not possible from outside to tell when the human is driving and when the robot is driving, but I've never seen one do anything unsafe or questionable.
Needs the Johnny Cab guy in the front seat.