Zoox and The Self Driving Taxi
Elon Musk recently commented that some day soon we will use our smartphones to summon electrically powered, self driving taxis that will operate in much the same way Uber does today. The difference will be that without a driver, these self driving taxis will be less likely to get in a road accident, navigate more intelligently, cost less, you can’t rob them, and they won’t harass solo female travelers late at night. No matter how many challenges we might face bringing the self driving taxi to fruition, with all the companies working on the problems, we can be assured that self driving taxis will be a reality within the next few decades. One stealthy company that’s working on developing a self driving taxi from scratch is Zoox.
It’s always super exciting to see a company that is truly operating in stealth mode. That logo you see above is the extent of the Company’s website. You can click the logo to email them, but that’s about it. Surprisingly though, there is a fair amount of information about Zoox being disseminated in the media. Before getting into what Zoox is up to, we need to define what a self driving taxi actually is.
A true self-driving taxi would never expect a human “driver” to take control of the vehicle at any time, and therefore there is no need for a steering wheel, brake pedal, or gas pedal. While almost every major automotive company in the world is predicting self driving technology to debut by 2020 (just 4 years from now), the real success of a self driving taxi will be one that has been built with no place for a driver to sit and no ability whatsoever to control the car from within. That’s where Zoox is different from the rest in that they’re creating a self driving car that is bidirectional, has gull wing doors, and has no windshields. Here’s one of the concept drawings floating around of what the vehicle might look like:
If you don’t have a human driver, then the notion of driving forward or in reverse is irrelevant. Each wheel of the Zoox vehicle will operate independently giving the car an incredible amount of flexibility for parking or turning. Remember we talked about a company before called Protean that builds 100 horsepower electric motors for each wheel of your car? That’s exactly what Zooz is planning to do. They’ve licensed patents from Stanford for autonomous vehicle software and also bought a research concept vehicle that was an idea from Volvo which they will use as a base to build upon. There’s an excellent article from IEEE Spectrum at this link if you want to read more details about the background of the founder and the technology they’ve purchased so far.
With a $200 million funding round closed last month, Zoox now has a valuation of one unicorn ($1 billion) and has taken in a total investment of $240 million from a number of firms including renowned venture capitalist Draper Fisher Jurvetson. Like every other player out there, Zoox is hoping to put self driving taxis on the road by 2020.
Zoox isn’t alone in developing a truly self driving car. The Google self driving taxi has now driven more than 1.5 million miles on the streets of Mountain View, CA, Austin, TX, Kirkland, WA and Metro Phoenix, AZ. Uber is now testing a modified Ford Fusion on the streets of Pittsburgh. Every major car company out there is working on self driving cars. It’s only a matter of time before self driving taxis go mainstream.
Since Uber owns the most widely adopted “ride hailing software”, you’d expect them to have the greatest likelihood of success right? Not necessarily because there are a few things we need to consider here. Firstly, if you have a fleet of self driving taxis, you need a place to have them serviced. Since the average car is only driven 10% of the time, we would expect a self driving taxi to be driven 100% of the time which means a great more wear and tear on your vehicles if they operate 24/7. Uber will need to build out this infrastructure. Secondly, there are no barriers to entry for a “ride hailing app”. Given the popularity of Google Maps, it would take next to no effort to suddenly have self driving taxis start to appear on it. While Zoox has perhaps the coolest concept of any self driving taxi we’ve seen yet, it’s really anyone’s game. There’s also room for plenty of players which means it’s not likely that there will be just one winner. Update 7/18/18: Zoox has now reached a $3.2 Billion valuation after raising $500 million in additional funding to implement their plan – publicly deploying autonomous vehicles by 2020 – through their own ride-hailing service with all-electric, fully autonomous cars. That means total funding for Zoox is now at $790 million.
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