Working with developer Waymo, Geely's Zeekr brand readies battery-electric SEA-M platform for robotaxi duty.
Waymo has recently moved to expand Level 4 robotaxi operations to Los Angeles, after successful trials in other locations.
Several companies are now developing custom vehicles to serve as robotaxis once Level 4 technology arrives on a wider scale.
Google's autonomous arm Waymo and Geely's EV brand Zeekr revealed in 2021 that they were working on a new platform for electric robotaxis. The two companies are aiming to beat other automakers to the launch of purpose-made autonomous EVs, the kind that could serve as the robotaxis of the future once Level 4 technology starts to arrive at scale.
Now Zeekr has revealed the SEA-M architecture, derived from Sustainable Experience Architecture (SEA) for purpose-built vehicles, that is expected to underpin robotaxis with Waymo's autonomous tech.
And perhaps unsurprisingly, it looks like an MPV—a shape favored by futuristic concepts of this type dating back decades—with a low floor and a relatively tall roof. But it also incorporates some elements of mobile lounge-style concepts that we've seen in recent years, including sliding front doors, as many automakers have arrived at the same general layout.
The platform itself is an evolution of the Zeekr 001, which was the company's first EV as its name suggests.
"The SEA-M architecture is a high-tech mobility solution from ZEEKR refined from the original Sustainable Experience Architecture (SEA) to support a range of future mobility products including robotaxis, multi-purpose vehicles, and logistics vehicles, laying a solid and flexible foundation for global autonomous driving technology or ride-sharing companies to develop," the company says.
Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the concept revealed in LA is the lack of a B-pillar in the vehicle, and the subway-style doors that slide open. This allows passengers to enter the front and rear seats at once, on both sides of the vehicle. The entire span of the two open doors is 4.6 feet, which presents a comparable ingress point to a modern minivan.
"With flat floors and an expansive axle to length ratio, designers have been able to maximize interior space with a capsule design," Zeekr notes. "The SEA-M’s advanced E/E backbone empowers multifunctional screens which allow users to keep connected or be entertained on the road."
Zeekr hasn't shared detailed powertrain specs of the SEA-M platform so far, though we can certainly expect at least a couple of hundred miles of range from it.
When will we see something like this on the street?
Relatively soon, according to Zeekr. The company plans to begin producing the robotaxi in 2024 for the Waymo fleet, which recently announced the spread of its autonomous operations to Los Angeles.
Quite a lot still depends not only on Waymo's successful rollout of its Level 4 robotaxis in US cities, but the business case behind it. The electric Level 4 vehicles will have to compete cost-wise with ride hailing drivers in a ten-year-old hatchback, sedan, or minivan, at least at some point in the future. So creating an electric platform and developing the Level 4 autonomous tech for a robotaxi, as daunting as it still seems today (and a task that has already consumed billions of dollars) is only half of the battle in replacing human taxi and ride-hailing drivers.