Inside Zoox’s six-year ride from prototype to product

Zoox, the autonomous vehicle company that was acquired this year by Amazon, revealed this week the product of six years of work: A purpose-built self-driving vehicle designed to carry people — and someday maybe even packages — in dense urban environments.

The company’s story has captured the attention of skeptics and supporters alike, perhaps because of its secretive nature and outsized mission. Unlike its rivals, Zoox is developing the self-driving software stack, the on-demand ride-sharing app and the vehicle itself. Zoox also plans to own, manage and operate its robotaxi fleet.

Unlike its rivals, Zoox is developing the self-driving software stack, the on-demand ride-sharing app and the vehicle itself.

It’s been an expensive pursuit that almost led to its demise before Amazon snapped it up — and the mission is still far from over. But today, as an independent Amazon subsidiary, it has the financial support of one of the world’s most valuable public companies.

TechCrunch interviewed Zoox co-founder and CTO Jesse Levinson about the company’s milestone, the vehicle design, its exit to Amazon and what lies ahead.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

TechCrunch: What was your trick or how did you remain focused for six years on something that is futuristic, expensive and possibly could fail? What did you personally do to keep that focus?

Jesse Levinson: Well, doing something like this is definitely challenging and it requires patience. I think the advice I would give is first to convince yourself that what you’re doing makes sense and is important and worth doing. If you’re starting a company because your goal is to make as much money as possible, if it turns out to be hard it’s going to be really difficult to convince yourself and your team and investors to stick with the idea.

One of the great things about Zoox is that the idea itself just makes a lot of sense. From first principles, there’s really a compelling reason to solve the problem the way we’ve been solving it and the market opportunity is unquestionably enormous. So armed with those facts and a team of wonderful employees and investors who strongly believed in that, we were able to weather some of the ups and downs of the industry, even though it’s not always been an easy ride.

Let’s go back in time to the very first concept when you started to think of what a purpose-built vehicle would look like. Those early drawings showed a very, very different looking type of vehicle.

Are you referring to maybe like the sports-car-looking vehicle? We were actually never planning on launching a sports car as our first product; that was more of like a vision statement. Honestly, if you’re trying to move people around cities, it makes much more sense to have the kind of compact carriage like we showed this morning. We were never actually building a sports car. 

What is it like to create a long-term, cutting-edge product that exists at the edge of regulation? It seems like a very unique problem. 

I would say that if you have a big idea and you’re confident that it makes sense, you should at least explore the idea, rather than giving up because the current regulations aren’t designed for it.

At the same time, it’s very important to be respectful of the regulatory process, and you can’t assume that you can ignore it. I think companies that have tried that approach have usually found that doesn’t work very well either. We’ve taken a very proactive approach to working with regulatory agencies at the local, state and federal level, and we’ve been very forthcoming with “this is how we look at the problem” and “this is what we want to do.”

We’ve also been fortunate because over time the regulations on the local, state and federal level have really evolved to accommodate what we’ve been working on since 2014, even though when we started the company in 2014, those regulations did not exist. 

The vehicle today, was that what you had in your mind, or what the team had in mind, from the very beginning? Or was it a bit different?

Yeah, honestly, there have been very few substantive changes to the vehicle’s design since we started working on it in 2014 and 2015. Obviously, we refined it and actually had to make it work from an engineering and crash perspective. But if you look at some of the drawings that we were exploring in 2014 and 2015, it’s extremely similar.

You must have known from the beginning that you were going to have to try and get FMVSS (Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards) approval and it would have to pass all those crash tests. Tell me a little bit about the development of the airbag system, who came up with that and how long have you been working on it? 

Sure, we’ve been working on our airbags for about five years now, and pretty early on we identified that a double horseshoe concept would be a really great way to protect and envelope passengers. So there’s a double horseshoe, as well as side impact airbags, and it’s an incredibly sophisticated way of protecting all four passengers in a symmetrical vehicle that we think goes well beyond what’s possible in the conventional passenger car. So it’s been a long time in the making. 

So is the airbag something that Zoox has patented or did this concept exist already?

We’ve filed a number of patents in the space.

How many patents have been filed for the vehicle? 

Dozens and dozens. I don’t know if it’s 100 yet but it’s quite a lot. It may well be 100 at this point.

Zoox L5 fully autonomous, all-electric robotaxi interior. Image Credits: Zoox

I want to talk about the two extremes that you likely went through in this past six years. We’ll start with the lowest point. What was the lowest moment that you can recall when you thought that the whole thing, that Zoox, could possibly just crater?

Well, I’ve never been that afraid, but the beginning of this year was certainly difficult. It was difficult for lots of people around the world so it’s not that we’re the only ones who had challenges. But we were toward the finishing stretches of putting our Series C together and then in March everything kind of came crashing down around the world economically. We had to reevaluate what our options were. We were very, very fortunate that Amazon was deeply excited about what we were building and wanted to do this and take it all the way. And, of course, they have the resources to weather more than a storm or two. So that was wonderful.

There were definitely a couple months there where we had to figure out what our path forward was, and that’s always a scary thing for a company to go through.

How did the Amazon-Zoox relationship unfold and were you worried about giving up control to a giant corporation?

I think anytime you run a company you’re accountable to people other than only yourself, right? You have a board, you have investors, you have a parent company. If you’re a public company. you have the public markets and so there’s never this sort of fantasy world where you never have to think about anybody.

And in our case, when we got to know Amazon, we were so excited because they are incredibly long-term oriented, they have a track record of solving really hard problems and monetizing them even if it takes some patience. Very excitingly for us they deeply believed in not only the market opportunity that we’re going after, but in particular our approach to solving it, and so we became quite confident that we would, if anything, have maybe even more autonomy as part of Amazon because you know if they believe in what we’re doing, and we’re aligned on that, not having to answer to investors and raise money every one or two years is actually quite liberating.

What has been the biggest or highest moment for you in this six years? Was it the very first days of getting started or was it today? 

There have been so many magical moments at Zoox, it’s really hard to pick one. But one that stands out in my recent memory is the previous weekend when we were filming those shots at the Fairmont Hotel. I got to actually hail a Zoox vehicle in downtown San Francisco, it showed up, the door slid open, I got to get in it, and I got to go for a ride at 25 miles an hour with no steering wheel, no safety driver, in the city.

It’s something that we’ve been working toward for many years, and yes, we still have hard work ahead of us to actually unleash that as a full service for the public. But getting to experience that really early and to discover that it was everything I hoped it would be was pretty amazing.

What is your hope at the federal level? Do you see real guidelines being formalized? (Right now they’re voluntary.) Do you anticipate that happening in 2021, with the new administration? Or are you going to focus more on California and Nevada state regulations because that’s where you’ve identified where you would like to operate first?

Well, we’re actually in good shape from a federal perspective. We have designed our vehicle to comply with the FMVSS and we are crash testing our vehicle to all of those standards. We’ve actually attempted most of them and passed every one that we’ve attempted, so you know, really we’re not actually blocked on the federal level.

We’ll see what happens with the new administration and what the future of regulations brings but at this point we’re actually good to go. 

Then you don’t need an exemption (federally)? You don’t have a steering wheel.

Yeah, we’ve designed our vehicle to be compliant with the FMVSS. And so we were not looking for an exemption approach. 

Is it because you’re going to be under 25 miles an hour? My understanding was that if you didn’t have a steering wheel that the vehicle wouldn’t comply. So how does that work?

I would just say that’s not our interpretation of the standards.

What do you do now? I assume the focus is on testing, validation and verification and then starting to work on a service. But can you give some more details of what that might mean in terms of timeline, and which marketplace you expect to launch in first? 

Yeah, so we’re still extensively testing our Level 3 fleets in Las Vegas and in San Francisco. Those are our two target markets that we’ve identified as our launch opportunities. And, you know, in the meantime we’re continuing to test a Level 3 fleet on public roads as well as testing and validating our ground-up vehicles on private roads and test trucks.