Secretive Robotaxi Startup Zoox Prepares for Real-World Testing

Schematic of Zoox's proposed bidirectional, all-electric, self-driving car
Photo: Mark Harris
Zoox doesn't announce its presence, but it is preparing to making a splash in the world of self-driving cars.

There was not much to see when I arrived at the entrance to the small business park in the sleepy Silicon Valley town of San Carlos, Calif. Signage for three of its units was blank, but upon closer inspection, I could just make out the word “Zoox” on a door. I had tracked the company to this location using visa and property records and was hoping to get a glimpse of what it was up to.

The name “Zoox” probably does not mean much to its neighbors, or even to electric vehicle fans seeking the birthplace of Tesla Motors, which started in this very building in 2004. But behind these glass walls and shuttered garages is one of the most buttoned-up and most valuable autonomous vehicle startups in the world.

first investigated this stealthy startup for IEEE Spectrum in 2015, revealing its ambition to develop a fully automated robotaxi from the ground up. Two years later, Zoox is valued at US $1.55 billion, employs over 200 people, and has more than 50 Ph.D.s and postdocs in computer vision, artificial intelligence, and automotive design—many previously employed at Tesla. It remains one of the lowest profile companies in the Valley, shunning press coverage and sharing nothing more than a stylized infinity logo on its website.

My latest investigation has uncovered patents filed by the company, progress on the development of its technology, and testing details. Zoox’s vision—the same one that propelled it when it was a small startup working out of a decommissioned fire station on the grounds of Stanford University—remains on track. Its aim: to transform transportation by offering a Level 5, or completely driverless, mobility service.

“When I’m on that campus, there’s an app in my phone, and I can press a button and one of our autonomous vehicles…will drive through the road network to come to rest where I am,” said Tim Kentley-Klay, founder and CEO of Zoox, at a meeting at Stanford last year. “When I’m inside, I push another button and that vehicle takes me to where I want to go… And when I get out, that vehicle then goes and does that for someone else... That entire dance happens without human intervention.”

When I visited Stanford in early 2015, Zoox was working with an innovative research “mule” initially devised by KTH Royal Institute of Technology, in Stockholm. The vehicle was outfitted with lidar, radar, video, and ultrasonic sensors. The car had an electric motor in each wheel and was designed to be bidirectional, meaning it could move equally well forward and backward. Several researchers at KTH subsequently left to join Zoox. Sources familiar with the company say that although Zoox is still testing using KTH vehicles, there has been considerable evolution in the Swedish university’s design.

Zoox experimented with internal combustion and fuel cell technologies, but according to sources, it has returned to the concept of an all-electric drivetrain for its first prototype. The project has already reached the “body in white” stage, where the shape of the car has been largely finalized, in preparation for the production of the chassis and bodywork.

Recently issued patents (filed in late 2015) provide more detail about what Zoox has been working on. The paperwork includes images that match early design sketches of the car. One patent suggests the car might use novel materials, such as a foam insulation frame with a matrix of triangular, circular, and hexagonal shapes that provide structural support and serve as conduits for cables, hoses, and wiring.

The outside of the vehicle might have a flexible fabric skin that could carry advertising or the name of a transportation provider. But the most radical change is in the vehicle’s interior. There is no driver’s seat or controls. Instead, the car’s four seats face toward the middle of the vehicle. Passengers awaiting collection might be alerted by the car “winking” its headlights; the vehicle might confirm that it has the right person via facial recognition.

A patent concerning teleoperation seems to call into doubt Kentley-Klay’s claim that Zoox vehicles can operate with zero human intervention. A source familiar with the company confirms that each Zoox vehicle can be remotely operated if it suffers an accident or encounters an unfamiliar situation. One remote operator would have responsibility for multiple vehicles. The patent provides an example of a teleoperator user interface showing sensor data, remaining charge, and local speed limits.

Zoox is also fairly unique among autonomous vehicle startups in considering the safety of other road users. One of the patents mentions AI algorithms that can estimate the probability that nearby human drivers, cyclists, or pedestrians are behaving irrationally, and adjust the car’s trajectory accordingly. When the Zoox vehicle predicts that someone might stray into its path, it would direct flashing lights and a steerable beam of sound at them. If an accident appears unavoidable, external bladders would rapidly fill with air to cushion the impact.

Zoox will obviously need self-driving software to control its new vehicle. The company was launched with a 10-year, royalty-free, exclusive license to Stanford University’s self-driving car software, developed in part by Zoox’s cofounder, Jesse Levinson. In early 2016, Zoox applied for an autonomous vehicle testing permit from the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Its testing regime started with a single Lexus SUV. A fleet of five modified Toyota Highlanders—operating as Level 3 autonomous vehicles with a safety driver ready to take over at any time—now form the core of its testing fleet.

Testing the company’s fully driverless development car could prove trickier. While Zoox’s base at Stanford is on private property, the company’s road testing agreement with the university (obtained by IEEE Spectrum under a Freedom of Information Act request) stipulates that Zoox researchers must obey “all California driver requirements applicable to public roads.” The DMV is working on rules for the testing and deployment of driverless vehicles, but they will not be ready until late this year at the earliest.

In an effort to sidestep that set of limitations, Kentley-Klay got in touch with Randy Iwasaki of GoMentum Station, an old naval weapons base near San Francisco in March 2016. Iwasaki now calls the base the largest secure autonomous vehicle test facility in the world. According to documents obtained via public records request, Kentley-Klay wrote to Iwasaki, saying: “We do indeed have a vehicle to test, so now would be a great time to connect.” Iwasaki later reported that Zoox was “looking for a high-speed testing facility for their robo-taxi.”

Unlike other firms developing automated vehicles, Zoox does not have a cash-rich parent company like Google or Uber, or a traditional car company, backing it. But Zoox has a healthy pile of money. Investors poured in over $200 million in 2016 alone, bringing the company’s value to around $1.55 billion. Although one source says that Zoox is already planning for vehicle deployments and even a regional charging network, another says that the car is still in the prototyping phase. A third person who was given a ride in Zoox’s development vehicle last year agrees with that second assessment: “The vehicle was a fairly early prototype. It didn’t even have a shell and was open to the air. They are probably the best at fundraising, but technology-wise it was not that impressive.”

Last October, Zoox applied for a new trademark: “Expand Possible.” It sounds rather cryptic, but nothing could better describe the vision of this ambitious, secretive startup.

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