Now An Amazon Company, Zoox Is Ready To Dial-Up Its Robotaxi Push

A self-driving Zoox vehicle on a test run in San Francisco. ZOOX

Self-driving tech startup Zoox has gone through a big management shakeup and surprise sale to Amazon in the past two years. But with the acquisition complete the secretive Silicon Valley firm is ready to reveal its electric robotaxi and updated plans–which don’t include pivoting to automated deliveries despite being owned by a retail behemoth worth more than a trillion dollars.

“Eventually, probably, we can move other things but it’s very clear for Amazon this is a growth opportunity. Our mission–a ground-up robotaxi, moving people, ride-hailing–is absolutely intact,” CEO Aicha Evans tells Forbes. Next month “you will see the real vehicle. You will see it driving in autonomy, performing maneuvers. We’re unveiling the curtain as to what Zoox is up to and how we’re doing things.”

She didn’t provide a specific date.

The purpose-built “bi-directional” Zoox-designed model with four-wheel steering capability–and no accelerator and brake pedals or steering wheel–is purpose-built to ferry passengers around cities, starting with San Francisco and Las Vegas. Past images of the Foster City, California-based company’s prototypes revealed little more than the skeletal metal frame, wheels and seats of a compact, van-like creation. The design and features remain a mystery.

The company’s concept is similar to General Motors-backed Cruise’s electric self-driving Origin van, shown in January, but smaller and intended to haul one to two passengers (though it can carry up to four).

Dreamt up by Australian designer and entrepreneur Tim Kentley Klay, Zoox was an idiosyncratic entry in the self-driving car space relative to heavyweights including Alphabet’s Waymo and Cruise. Guided by Kentley Klay’s sci-fi vision for robotic driving he cofounded the company in 2014 with Stanford University computer scientist Jesse Levinson, promising a bespoke robotaxi with unique capabilities and rider amenities that Zoox would build inhouse. The company raised nearly $1 billion in its first few years, but Kentley Klay was unexpectedly fired as CEO in 2018, replaced by former Intel executive Evans, a native of Senegal and the only woman running an autonomous vehicle company.

Shortly after the coronavirus pandemic hit this year, Zoox was reported to be seeking a buyer. Amazon ultimately rolled in with an offer worth an estimated $1.3 billion.

The transaction closed in early August, and while cofounder Levinson remains as chief technology officer, neither Kentley Klay nor any of Zoox’s original board members are still connected with the company. The latest addition to Amazon’s vast operations puts it on a path to compete head-to-head with Waymo in the robotic ride business.

“Amazon is super excited to get into a new market. That’s why they bought Zoox,” says Levinson. “We talked about a variety of possibilities and it wasn’t lost on us that this technology can be applied to things they’re already working on, and hopefully will be someday. But they’ve been explicit with us throughout this entire process that the opportunity to move people around cities is a multi-trillion dollar win globally.”

Zoox and Cruise, unlike Waymo, prioritize having a fleet of purpose-built vehicles designed solely to operate as robotaxis. But whereas Cruise can rely on GM to supply its fleet and Waymo is buying tens of thousands of vehicles from automotive partners that it modifies for its fleet, Zoox is keeping vehicle production in-house.

It’s been readying a dedicated production facility in Fremont, California, home to Tesla’s sprawling EV assembly plant, that will be able to churn out “tens of thousands” of vehicles annually, according to Levinson. That’s possible owing to a simple-to-assemble design.

“We have a vast, global tier-one supply chain that’s building parts of the vehicles. Think about it like, and I know I’m oversimplifying, a huge Lego–a multiton Lego,” Evans says. “You have the drive units, you have the body, you have the seating, the wheels, and all of that comes into the sub-big components. Then we snap them to grid and off it goes.”

Zoox’s production plans are entirely separate from those of electric truckmaker Rivian, which Amazon has also invested in and ordered 100,000 delivery vehicles from.

“We’re very much two separate companies and we’re pursuing quite different markets,” Levinson says. “They’re really focused on electric trucks, human-driven trucks. They’ll have autonomous features at some point, but they’re making cars to sell to people and businesses. We’re in the robotaxi market.”

“We have a vast, global tier-one supply chain that’s building parts of the vehicles. Think about it like … a huge Lego–a multiton Lego.”

Zoox CEO Aicha Evans
While Kentley Klay’s plan for Zoox to launch an initial commercial fleet in San Francisco by the end of 2020 isn’t happening, the company has received permission to operate fully driverless vehicles in California and Nevada, without a human backup driver, and may be able to begin revenue-generating pilot programs in both locations within a year or so. Along with its San Francisco test fleet of modified Toyota crossover vehicles, Zoox also tests in Las Vegas.

Publicly, the company’s development pace appeared to slow in 2019 and much of 2020. But freed from the endless grind of fundraising all startups face and with a deep-pocketed owner that Evans and Levinson say is willing to be patient, 2021 is shaping up to be a big year for Zoox. And given that covid-19 slowed public ride plans for Waymo and Cruise for most of this year, Zoox’s bigger, better-funded rivals may have a bit less of an edge next year.

“Resiliency is the name of the game,” Evans says. Though worried about the severe impact the pandemic was going to have, she also remembered guidance been given by her mentor, Intel cofounder Andy Grove. “In a crisis, bad companies die. Good companies survive. And great companies emerge stronger.”

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