There may be a safer and more efficient way for people to get from place to place, according to Zoox chief technology officer and co-founder Jesse Levinson: Get rid of the drivers.
"The impact on society, the number of hours that are wasted, the number of people who die, and the economic environmental impact of driving — all that combined, is really pretty mind-blowing," he said.
Amazon made a big bet on autonomous vehicles when it acquired Silicon Valley-based Zoox in 2020 for $1.3 billion. It's not alone. Companies like Tesla, GM's Cruise, and Alphabet's Waymo are all investing heavily in their self-driving technology and cars. In 2021, 20.3 million self-driving vehicles were produced, according to MarketsandMarkets.com. That number is expected to increase to 62.4 million units by 2030.
Zoox is simultaneously working on three initiatives: a ride-hailing app to help people get around, the technology to tell cars how to get around cities without drivers, and the driverless vehicles themselves.
"One of the great things about our vehicle's design is you don't feel like there's a missing driver," Levinson explained. "There's not some disembodied steering wheel that's kind of doing this and you're like, 'Oh where's the driver?' That's just not the thing that you see in a vehicle because it was never designed to be driven by a person."
There are different levels of autonomous vehicles. Level One still requires human drivers, but technology can assist to keep them centered in lanes or the appropriate distance from other cars. Level Three can drive themselves, but a human can jump in and take over.
Level Four, like Zoox's purpose-built vehicles which will be used on its service, does not have any options for human drivers and operate on pre-mapped routes. Zoox believes, however, that its cars are Level Five capable, which means it can drive without having a specific map set for it.
"It's just a robo-taxi that was never designed to be driven by a human," Levison added.
The bespoke Zoox vehicles operate like carriages. Four people can sit comfortably inside. Touch screens allow people to "communicate" with the car to change the music or temperature, and riders will be able to use the app to talk to a representative if there are any issues. Cameras are set up inside for safety. There are no steering wheels or pedals.
"Very quickly, when you start riding, it feels almost uneventful," said Zoox director of manufacturing engineering Michael Lemperle. "You're on your phone very quickly and just kind of ride and really see that you can use your time now for something that you can't when you have to watch the road and drive."
In addition, there's no front to the vehicle. It has an engine on both sides, and can even crab walk and move horizontally to get into tight spaces or parallel parking spots.
"This vehicle is 100 percent bi-directional," Lemperle said. "It can perform all the driving in both directions equally well."
The Zoox vehicles are gearing up for public tests soon. People in San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area, Seattle, and Las Vegas may have seen its retrofitted Level Three Toyota Highlanders, which are testing out the technology and mapping cities.
"From a quantitative risk perspective, we're analyzing millions of scenarios in real life and in simulation," Levinson said. "And we're not going to put anybody in these vehicles on open public roads until we're meaningfully safer than humans."
All that remains to be seen is if people are willing to give a driverless future a try.
"It just gives people so much time back," Lemperle said. "It makes it safer, and I think it gives it opens up mobility to a significant, larger part of the population."