SAFETY—BEFORE, DURING, AND AFTER A CRASH
>> We’ve built our robotaxi from the ground up. Now, to truly test it, we have to break it apart.
Built for safety
If you’ve been following the Zoox journey for a while, you’ll know that safety is the foundation of everything we do. The mission is to create a safer way for people to get around cities, and like all new passenger vehicles, our robotaxi had to meet rigorous performance criteria before it was allowed on public roads. How do we demonstrate that performance? Crash testing.
We’ve been developing our purpose-built robotaxi since 2014. All that time, we’ve been building it to pass the rigorous crash tests that are part of NHTSA’s Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS).
"Even though we’re building Zoox from the ground up, we still have to comply with the same regulations as every other passenger vehicle on the road."
AMANDA PRESCOTT, DIRECTOR OF HOMOLOGATION AND FEATURE INTEGRATION
The crash test journey
The crash tests themselves are very quick, but the build-up to them is anything but. Years ahead of time, we begin laying out the performance requirements we need to meet. The basis of these are the FMVSS.
At the same time, our Structural, Computer-Aided Engineering (CAE), Restraints, and Interiors teams work together to determine what data we need to capture and how best to do so. That includes deciding what instrumentation should be on the crash vehicle, which camera views we need, and where we paint vehicle crash targets.
"A typical crash test takes about 300 milliseconds to complete, but the preparation for it can take weeks. In each test, we have one chance to get the data we need."
MARKUS JOST, VEHICLE SAFETY SENIOR MANAGER
Before we put everything together, we check each feature of the vehicle at the component level. Testing smaller components lets us test their performance early on in the vehicle design process so we can focus on exactly what needs to be refined in each feature before the robotaxi is assembled.
Another crucial step is crash simulation testing, carried out by our CAE team. They simulate crashes (both component and full-body) before we run real-world crash tests on the robotaxi. This crucial information lets us continually iterate on our vehicle design to meet our performance requirements. Thanks to these simulations, we had virtually crash-tested our robotaxi thousands of times before we built our physical prototype in 2018.
Once everything is ready, we begin the full vehicle crash tests. The FMVSS require us to focus on three key areas: front crashes, side crashes, and crashes that test the integrity of our electric powertrain.
Our autonomous vehicle
Our robotaxi has been in development since 2014. In 2019, we finished one round of crash testing on its first iteration. We took our learnings from those crash tests and implemented them into the current version of our robotaxi. This is the vehicle we’ve put to the test to demonstrate our crash performance as we move towards commercialization.
We were the first company in the world to self-certify a purpose-built, fully autonomous, all-electric passenger vehicle to FMVSS standards. It’s a huge milestone not just for us, but for mobility in general.
"The Zoox robotaxi has the most comprehensive set of safety features ever implemented in a vehicle."
ANDY PIPER, VP OF VEHICLE DEVELOPMENT
Protecting everybody equally
The reason we test so extensively is because we’re developing new safety technologies as part of our vision for mobility. We chose to build our robotaxi from the ground up so that we could go beyond existing solutions. That’s why we imagine, develop, and crash test new ones.
Safety features have historically been designed with front-seat passengers in mind. But in the Zoox robotaxi, there are no dedicated front or back seats. This presents us with a challenge, but also an opportunity to set a new standard for crash safety—not just for autonomous vehicles, but for all vehicles—in which every passenger is equally safe.
With no dashboard to deploy an airbag from, we have developed a unique horseshoe-style airbag that surrounds passengers and protects from both front and side collisions. Making sure our airbag works as expected is a critical part of the crash testing process. The goal is to give every seat in our robotaxi the highest level of safety, which is normally only possible in the front seats of a conventional car.
The unique horseshoe airbags when fully deployed.
"As part of going beyond what is required, we have applied the FMVSS performance requirements to our rear seating positions. This sets a higher bar than in a conventional vehicle."
MARKUS JOST, VEHICLE SAFETY SENIOR MANAGER
Another key feature we can only truly evaluate through crash testing is the crumple zone—which has to be engineered differently for Zoox. Designed for mobility and tight turning, our robotaxi is short and compact, leaving little room for a crumple zone in its traditional form.
The solution is to fit all of the driving module and motor inside the limited space and then use that architecture to dissipate the crash energy before it reaches those inside the carriage. This architecture is a first not just for autonomous vehicles, but for the transportation industry as a whole.
After the crash
In the real world, the post-crash site is a hazardous area.
Fumes, leaking fluids, and debris present a risk to anyone nearby as well as those inside.
That’s why assessing the condition of our robotaxi after impact is a key part of the test. There are certain things it has to be able to do, even in its damaged state—for example, display hazard lights and switch off the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning. These measures help to protect both riders and rescuers.
Moving safety forward
We built our robotaxi to make road transportation dramatically safer than it is today. Our goal isn’t just to meet existing safety standards—we want to exceed them.
Rigorous, comprehensive crash testing is vital to this mission.