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Autonomous Car Startup Zoox Developing Unique Bidirectional Vehicle

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【Summary】With a total of $800 million in funding, self-driving car startup Zoox is looking to revolutionize the driverless scene with its bespoke bidirectional car that it’s building from the ground up.

Original Vineeth Joel Patel    Jul 20, 2018 5:00 PM PT
Autonomous Car Startup Zoox Developing Unique Bidirectional Vehicle

When it comes to making an autonomous vehicle, automakers and technology companies are taking similar paths by outfitting existing vehicles with the necessary self-driving hardware and software. All it takes is one look at the leaders in the segment to see how everyone's going down the same road.


For its self-driving testing, Waymo is using Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans that it has outfitted with all of the necessary software and hardware. In addition to the Pacifica Hybrid minivans, Waymo is also modifying Jaguar I-Pace electric SUVs for its autonomous program. 


General Motors, which is one of the largest automakers in the world has done something similar to Waymo, but since it has a fleet of its own machines on hand, the American brand is utilizing one of its own cars. When it came time for GM to make a fleet of self-driving cars, the company went with the Chevrolet Bolt EV as the base for its autonomous fleet. 


The thinking behind going with a pre-existing vehicle boils down to costs. Autonomous cars are expensive to develop, test, and bring to market, so why spend even more money building something all new? For the majority of companies, that just doesn't make a lot of sense. 


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Zoox Wants To Change The Game


Zoox, which used to be a secretive autonomous startup out of Silicon Valley, has a different idea on making an autonomous vehicle and it doesn't involve using another company's car. As Bloomberg Businessweek outlines in an extensive article, Zoox's founders, Jesse Levinson and Tim Kentley-Klay, believe that everyone else is wrong for choosing to go down the path of outfitting pre-existing cars. Instead, the company has plans to build its own. And while that may sound crazy, it's got the money for it. 


As the outlet points out in its report, Zoox has raised roughly $800 million, $500 million of which came earlier this month. In total, the company has a post-money valuation of $3.2 billion. 


So what exactly is Zoox hoping to make? Well, the vehicle itself is all-electric – no surprises there. It is, and this is the surprising part, bidirectional. This unique aspect of the vehicle should make it easy for it to get around tight, urban areas. The vehicle, as Bloomberg claims, makes noises to communicate with pedestrians and has windows that serve as screens to display messages to riders. The innovative driverless car is supposed to become the safest car on the road and be the bodywork for the company's ride-hailing service. 


"We are a startup pitted against the biggest companies on the planet," said Kentley-Klay. "But we believe deeply that what we're building is the right thing. Creativity and technical elegance will win here." 


Despite having the creativity and money to bring its unique money to market, Zoox's founders still think it's a large bet to see whether they'll make it to 2020. That's the date the company hopes to put its first cars on the road. "It's a huge bet," said Kentley-Klay. If the bet pays off, though, he believes that major players like GM, Apple, Alphabet, and Daimler will all be in a tough situation. 


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Zoox's Interesting Start


When it came to getting to work, Zoox picked a location that was in prime real estate for Silicon Valley – the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. While the site is known for being one of the more prominent locations for American physicists, the location also houses roads that are hidden away from the public. Zoox got its hands on one of the facilities' old firehouses and a headquarter was born. 


Once settled, Zoox's engineers started to create the underpinnings of an autonomous vehicle. Skeletal machines were the first to be developed and came out in early 2015 claims the outlet. A software team set out to work on the brains of the system that would allow the vehicle to drive on its own. Obviously, the founders knew exactly what they wanted from the beginning. 


As Bloomberg states, the Zoox team wanted a vehicle that had an identical front and rear end, helping with the bidirectional theme, a motor on each of the car's four wheels, which would help in maneuverability, and all of the necessary hardware built directly into the machine, not on it. 


From looking at Zoox's current prototypes, the last part is crucial for the company. While all three generation's of the company's driverless vehicles – the VH1, VH4, and VH5 – are far from being road-ready with sensors and cameras sticking out of the body work, it looks like the components will eventually be tucked away when the company outfits the machines with a body.  


In addition to having a stranger look than other autonomous vehicles, the company's self-driving prototypes have some more interesting components on the outside. The rows of LED lights at the front and back are used to communicate with other individuals on the road, including drivers and pedestrians. 


Zoox Team.jpg


Will Zoox's Innovative Approach To Autonomy Work?


It really does sound like Zoox is taking a different approach to autonomous vehicles, but real-world testing is still king. And the company's vehicles aren't road legal, which means they've had to resort to going down the same path that everyone has had to by outfitting a Toyota Highlander with its sensors and software. 


The company has also developed an innovative way to test its vehicles by building a "virtual reality suit for a car," claims Kentley-Klay. Zoox's new facility in Foster City has a machine that simulates thousands of hours of real-life driving by running the drivetrain in place. A high-end computer that's capable of performing 40 trillion calculations per second is close by. 


For a startup that's competing with giants like Waymo, Apple, Uber, and General Motors, it sounds like Zoox is taking the hard road. But, as Bloomberg claims, both founders know that things could end poorly at any moment. They also know that they're taking the more difficult path to autonomy, but they're still going for it. It's a sense of honesty and courage that's seemingly missing from larger competitors. 


"For me, it's not complicated," said Kentley-Klay. "You have to think about what will give you the best result and then walk down that road, even if it means it's the harder road to go down." 

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