Zoox, A Self-Driving Car Startup Valued At $3.2 Billion, Is About To Bring Its Radical Vision Of Robot Taxis To The Road. Or Maybe Not
Few have had the pleasure. What you’d see is a black, carlike robot about the size and shape of a Mini Cooper. Or actually, like the rear halves of two Mini Coopers welded together. The interior has no steering wheel or dashboard, just an open space with two bench seats facing each other. The whole mock-up looks like someone could punch a hole through it. Because you’ve just invested $100 million in the thing, you’ve earned the right to have a seat and enjoy a simulated city tour while you pray that this vision of a driverless future will come to pass.
Of the many self-driving car hopefuls, Zoox Inc. may be the most daring. The company’s robot taxi could be amazing or terrible. It might change the world—not in the contemporary Silicon Valley sense, but in a meaningful sense—or it might be an epic flop. At this point, it’s hard to tell how much of the sales pitch is real. Luckily for the company’s founders, there have been plenty of rich people excited to, as Hunter S. Thompson once put it, buy the ticket and take the ride.
Zoox founders Tim Kentley-Klay and Jesse Levinson say everyone else involved in the race to build a self-driving car is doing it wrong. Instead of retro fitting existing cars with fancy sensors and smart software, they want to make an autonomous vehicle from the ground up.
The one 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. And, of course, Zoox wants to run its own ride-hailing service.
Both founders sound quite serious as they argue that Zoox is obvious, almost inevitable. The world will eventually move to perfectly engineered robotic vehicles, so why waste time trying to incorporate self-driving technology into yesteryear’s cars? “We are a startup pitted against the biggest companies on the planet,” Kentley-Klay says. “But we believe deeply that what we’re building is the right thing. Creativity and technical elegance will win here.”
Kentley-Klay, it should be clear, is a salesman. “We want to transform our cities in the way that we live, breathe, and work with our families and communities that’s really profound,” he says, by way of explaining the company’s name. (It’s an abbreviation of zooxanthellae, the algae that helps fuel coral reef growth, not a nod to some colourful hallucination from Dr. Seuss.) Levinson, whose father, Arthur, ran Genentech Inc., mentored Steve Jobs, and chairs Apple Inc., comes from Silicon Valley royalty. Together, Kentley-Klay and Levinson have raised an impressive pile of venture capital: about $800 million to date, including $500 million in early July at a valuation of $3.2 billion.
Even with all that cash, Zoox will be lucky to make it to 2020, when it expects to put its first vehicles on the road. “It’s a huge bet,” Kentley-Klay concedes. In the next breath, though, he predicts the future for all of his competitors— Alphabet, General Motors, Tesla, Apple, Daimler, et al.—if the bet pays off: “They’re f---ed.”
Kentley-Klay is a 43-year-old native Australian with a linebacker’s physique, a mischievous manner, and a family history of gimme-the-damn wheel adventurousness. His great-grandmother was the first Australian woman to get a driver’s license. His grandmother, the second Australian woman to get a pilot’s license, taught Kentley-Klay’s father, Peter, to fly during endurance air races between Sydney and London.
Young Tim was a tinkerer. Growing up in Melbourne, he tried to build a space shuttle out of spare parts from washing machines and lawnmowers, crafted a giant fibre glass whale to compete in a soapbox derby, and, until his parents found out, produced and sold fake IDs to schoolmates. In his 20s, he bought a decrepit 1958 Land Rover and turned it into a surfboard carrier he called the General. “It’s still his pride and joy,” says his mother, Robin.
After getting a degree in communication design, Kentley-Klay went into the ad business and became an industry-leading animator and video producer. He made ads for companies including Visa, McDonald’s, and Honda Motor, and his salesmanship improved with his design skills. “Every eight weeks, there was a new script,” he says. “You had to invent a new world with new characters and go through the really tough process of pitching an agency.”
In 2012, Kentley-Klay stumbled on a blog post about Google’s self-driving car project, then pretty much the only one in the field. He saw the company’s prototypes as unsightly half-measures, with their bulbous sensors mounted on some other company’s car like robot taxidermy. He started designing concepts, researching artificial intelligence, and, per the custom of would-be tech visionaries, wrote a manifesto. He also made videos depicting robo- taxied cities of tomorrow. Then, one day, he walked into his Melbourne office and announced he was off to America to fulfill his driverless dreams.
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