Peninsula Startup Zoox Gets 1st State Permit for Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service

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A Toyota SUV outfitted with sensors developed by Foster City-based Zoox.  (Zoox)

The California Public Utilities Commission on Friday awarded Foster City-based Zoox the state's first permit to carry members of the public as part of an autonomous vehicle passenger service.

The CPUC pilot project permit doesn't mean you'll be hopping in a driverless autonomous vehicle to get home from a bar after New Year's revelry.

The approval requires Zoox -- which rhymes with "nukes" -- to have a DMV-licensed safety driver at the wheel, and it bars the company from charging passengers during the pilot project.

Bert Kaufman, the company's chief of corporate and regulatory affairs, called the permit "an important milestone as we move toward launching fully autonomous" passenger service. The company has said it plans to roll out that service by the end of 2020.

Although it's the first firm to get a CPUC permit for autonomous vehicle passenger service, Zoox is one entrant in a crowded field testing autonomous vehicle technology and vehicles. So far, 62 companies have received DMV permits to test "drivered" autonomous vehicles in California. Just one, Alphabet's Waymo, has secured DMV permission to test driverless vehicles.

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The DMV permits are a prerequisite for applying for the CPUC's autonomous vehicle service permit. The commission regulates for-hire passenger carriers in the state.

Zoox has reportedly raised $790 million to not only develop a fully autonomous driving system but also to create a novel type of passenger vehicle. Those cars will be the centerpiece of a new ride-hailing service that will challenge Uber and Lyft -- both of which are also working to develop autonomous vehicles.

A Bloomberg-Businessweek profile earlier this year outlined the thinking behind the company's strategy:

(The vehicle) they’ve built is all-electric. It’s bidirectional so it can cruise into a parking spot traveling one way and cruise out the other. It makes noises to communicate with pedestrians. It has screens on the windows to issue custom welcome messages to passengers. If the founders prove correct, it will be the safest vehicle on the road, having replaced decades of conventions built around drivers with a type of protective cocoon for riders. ...

Prototypes of those revolutionary-sounding vehicles have been undergoing testing at off-street sites, including the former Alameda Naval Air Station.

But to develop and road-test its autonomous vehicle software and hardware, the company has been outfitting Toyota Highlander SUVs with sensors and computers and operating the vehicles in San Francisco and on the Peninsula.