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Yet another self-driving car company will use Austin as its testing grounds

A Zoox Toyota Highlander driving on Congress Avenue in front of the Texas Capitol building.
Amazon-owned Zoox will release its fleet of white SUVs with multicolored back-ends to Austin’s entertainment districts sometime in July.

A new fleet of self-driving cars will begin roaming downtown Austin next month.

The cars — white SUVs with a blue and purple color scheme painted on the sides — are courtesy of Zoox.

The Amazon-owned company said it chose Austin because its mapping software will learn from our horizontal traffic lights, railway crossings and "famous" thunderstorms.

The cars are also driving around and being tested in Miami, Seattle, San Francisco and Las Vegas.

"The insights we gain in these cities will be invaluable in every territory we operate in going forward," Zoox officials said in a June 5 announcement.

Right now, Zoox is testing out its software via retrofitted Toyota Highlanders equipped with safety drivers.

Down the road, Zoox wants to apply that software to its electric robotaxis — boxy, compact cars with no steering wheel, no gas or brake pedals, and no one in the driver's seat.

Zoox is eyeing San Francisco and Las Vegas as the potential first cities where customers can hail a robotaxi before eventually expanding to Austin.

At a virtual event Wednesday, Ron Thaniel, the senior director for policy and regulatory affairs at Zoox, said the robotaxis will "untether Americans from personal automobiles” and offer a service that’s safer and more environmentally friendly than today's human-operated, gas-powered ride-hailing options.

“An [autonomous vehicle] does not get distracted, an AV does not drive impaired, it does not drive when it's tired... therefore reducing fatalities of vulnerable road users in dense cities,” he said.

But, as it turns out, AV's are imperfect, too. Zoox has been under investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration since May for two rear-end collisions. Both incidents involved a motorcyclist and caused minor injuries.

If you're getting déjà vu, you might be thinking of Austin's checkered past with autonomous car company Cruise.

Cruise released over 100-self driving cars in Austin in September 2022. In the year that followed, Cruise received dozens of complaints, ranging in severity from blocking the Moody Center after a concert to interfering with emergency services, KUT previously reported.

Cruise paused operations nationwide last October after the California Department of Motor Vehicles suspended its testing license.

Waymo began testing its self-driving Jaguars in Austin in March. The company hasn’t been the subject of local complaints, but they too are in the midst of a federal investigation. In May, NHTSA began investigating Waymo for 22 incidents where the cars collided with gates and chains, hit parked cars and disobeyed traffic signals.

The city doesn't have control over autonomous vehicle companies that want to pilot in Austin. A law passed in 2017 by the Texas Legislature prohibits cities from regulating autonomous vehicles due to their economic potential.

But officials at Austin's Transportation and Public Works Department said they are working with Zoox to help the vehicles operate more safely.

"We believe AVs have the potential to enhance the safety of our streets, and we work with AV companies to ensure deployments are done thoughtfully to ensure minimal risk," the department said in a statement.

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