Amazon’s Zoox robot taxi: force to be reckoned with?
Chances are you never heard the name Zoox before. Still, after Amazon pumping $1,2 billion into the Californian start-up, the robot taxi company suddenly got out of the clouds into the bright sunlight. Just half December, it showed the world for the first time its production prototype (Level 4) steering wheel-less robot taxi actually drive the San Francisco and Las Vegas streets.
The Zoox is built from the ground up to be a robot taxi, enabling four people to sit face to face in comfort. It looks like a sleek mini-bus of just 3,63 m, with big sliding doors on each side and no obvious front or rear. It’s perfectly capable of bi-directional driving up to 120 km/hour, has four-wheel steering but no steering wheel.
133 kWh battery
It’s all-electric, featuring dual motors on each axis, and has an ‘oversized’ battery pack of 133kWh, bigger than Tesla’s current long-range models. This should enable the Zoox robot cab some 16 hours of continuous operation.
The car uses various sensors, cameras, radars, and lidars to ‘see’ the world around it. Zoox developed its own high-definition maps and virtual 3D models of the cities it wants to serve using retrofitted Toyota Highlanders. These are used to create a ‘geo-fenced’ area where the robotaxis can be deployed.
Hence it is an SAE Level 4 autonomous vehicle without a driver in certain controlled circumstances. The ultimate Level 5 is a vehicle capable of driving independently in all circumstances, all kinds of environments, and weather conditions. That’s still a different kettle of fish.
Recognizing people’s gestures
It uses Artificial Intelligence to detect and map all objects and persons within 150 meters, 360 degrees around the vehicle. And that includes recognizing people’s gestures, like a cyclist stretching his arm to indicate he’s going to turn left or right or a police officer gesturing to drive on.
There is no driver on board to intervene when the car’s AI fails. Still, all Zoox robot cars are remotely tracked by human operators that ‘see’ through the car’s digital eyes and make ‘suggestions’ for a track to follow in circumstances the car isn’t able to cope with. And when it goes extremely wrong: there are seat belts and specially developed airbags for passengers facing one another…
Working in the shadows
For the last six years, Zoox worked in the shadow of big names in the field of autonomous driving, like Elon Musk’s Tesla or Alphabet’s (Google) Waymo, or even ride-hailing giant Uber. But as a start-up, by 2018, it had already raised $800 million in venture capital. It was the first to get approval for providing self-driving transport services to the public in California.
Zoox was founded in 2014 by the Australian artist-designer Tim Kentley-Klay and Jesse Levinson, a developer of autonomous driving technology at Stanford University. The latter is the son of Apple’s Chairman, Arthur D. Levinson, also CEO of research and development biotech company Calico.
A new strategy
In 2018, co-founder and CEO Tim Kentley-Klay was forced out by his board after strategy disagreements. Levinson is still on board as Zoox CTO. The company took over its Chief Strategy Officer, Aicha Evans, from chipmaker Intel to become the new CEO in January 2019. She is the first African-American female CEO of an autonomous vehicle technology company.
A few months later, she had to deal with a lawsuit from Tesla, accusing Zoox of hiring end of 2018 four ex-Tesla staff members who brought proprietary information and trade secrets related to warehousing and shipping and logistics. Ultimately Evans managed to settle with Tesla for an undisclosed sum in April 2020.
By leading the company into the arms of Amazon in June 2020, her strategy for Zoox’s future became clear. From now on, Zoox, with the support of deep-pocketed Amazon, is a force to be reckoned with.
Investing in Aurora Technologies
Amazon already had invested in another Californian autonomous car developer, Aurora Technologies. The latter was founded by a trio of former execs from the autonomous vehicle teams of Google, Tesla, and Uber…
Uber, which has invested for a long time in its own self-driving technology, just decided a few weeks ago to sell its Advanced Technologies Group to Aurora and pump another $400 million into the start-up for a 26% stake.
Electric Rivian vans
So far, e-commerce giant Amazon focused on delivery systems like its compact Scout delivery robot, delivery by drones, or its own all-electric delivery vans, unveiled in December and built by electric pickup start-up Rivian.
Amazon ordered 100 000 electric vans to be used for the last mile deliveries of parcels. The first vehicles will be delivered in 2021. By 2022, 10 000 of them will be driving around. But now it’s clear Amazon is readying itself to get a big stake in the robot taxi business of the future too.