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Amazon’s robot taxi firm probed after unexplained crashes

Two motorcyclists were injured when self-driving Zoox vehicles unexpectedly braked in front of them

Zoox tests its self-driving software on a Toyota Highlander near its headquarters in Foster City, California, February 20, 2023 ©  Getty Images / Tayfun Coskun

The US government is investigating Amazon’s Zoox autonomous taxi technology after two of its vehicles braked suddenly and were rear-ended by motorcyclists. The company is already under investigation for potentially skirting federal safety rules.

According to documents posted on its website on Monday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has opened a preliminary investigation into Zoox’s autonomous driving system.

The decision to open the probe was made after Zoox notified the NHTSA of two incidents in which its cars “unexpectedly braked suddenly, leading to rear-end collisions,” the agency said. Each incident involved a Toyota Highlander fitted with Zoox’s self-driving hardware and software, and in each case, a motorcyclist collided with the vehicle and sustained injuries.

The documents did not state where the crashes took place. However, Zoox operates self-driving Toyota Highlanders in Seattle, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Foster City, California. The company has also tested its own all-electric passenger vehicles in Foster City and Las Vegas.

READ MORE: Tesla Autopilot linked to hundreds of crashes and 14 deaths – report

While the modified Highlanders feature regular controls and carry a human driver for safety reasons, Zoox’s own vehicles have no steering wheel or pedals and drive entirely autonomously. Passengers enter through sliding doors and sit facing each other on two bench seats while an array of sensors guide the carriage through busy city streets.

Amazon acquired Zoox in 2020 for more than $1 billion. The firm competes with Alphabet’s Waymo and General Motors’ Cruise, both of which have also been involved in accidents during testing. A Waymo vehicle injured a cyclist in a collision in San Francisco in February, four months after a Cruise car ran over a pedestrian and dragged her 20 feet along a street, causing serious injuries. 

The latter incident led Cruise to recall nearly 1,000 autonomous vehicles and temporarily suspend operations. The company is facing multiple government investigations and potentially ruinous fines.

Zoox has also faced investigation before. Last year, the NHTSA opened a probe into the company’s determination in 2022 that federal safety standards were not applicable to its driverless cars, “due to the unique configuration of the vehicle.”

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