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Inside Zoox: The robot vehicle totally changing transportation

Take an exclusive ride in the vehicle with no steering wheel that’s aiming to make car ownership a thing of the past.
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Riding in a Zoox car is boring, which is exactly how the company likes it. Every time a rider says they had a boring ride, Zoox knows it’s one step closer to delivering fully autonomous vehicular transportation to the masses.

“It’s boring because it’s smooth,” says Zoox CEO Aicha Evans. “One of our motives in the experience and design is you don’t even think about driving.”

Oh, and don’t call it a car.

“This is not a car.”

Jesse Levinson, Co-Founder and  CTO  at Zoox.

“The fact you cannot drive a Zoox vehicle by yourself, that it doesn’t have manual controls, that in our view distinguishes it from what people traditionally refer to as cars.”

In fact, Zoox views its vehicles as an antidote to cars. If Zoox has its way, no one will own cars in the future. Instead, people will use its fleet of on-call, fully-autonomous vehicles. Whenever a person needs a ride, they’ll hail a Zoox, much like one would an Uber or Lyft, and the driverless vehicle will pick them up at their door, drop them off at their destination, and then head out to service the next passenger.

Car ownership could become obsolete and in its stead may be a safer, greener, more reliable form of vehicular transportation.

How automated vehicles work

Zoox vehicles are distinct from Teslas and other cars that have partially automated driving systems. 

For one, a Zoox vehicle more closely resembles a tram car that shuttles people between terminals at an airport than it does a traditional car. It has a pair of double doors on each side of the vehicle and inside there are two rows of seats facing each other. 

The body of the car is made from carbon fiber, and the vehicle’s onboard computer is docked in the floor, beneath the passengers’ feet.

Aesthetically, the vehicle is more boxy than a traditional car and perfectly symmetrical, both front-to-back and side-to-side. This design allows for more precise steering.

“The only reason cars aren’t symmetrical today is you have to drive them in one direction,” says Levinson. “For example, you don’t have to do three-point or five-point turns. If you pick someone up in their driveway, you can just flip the lights and drive the other way.”

The major difference between Zoox and other partially automated vehicles, though, is that Zoox aren’t partially automated — they’re fully automated. They require no human activity for navigation. They’re completely controlled by the vehicle’s software operating system. A human couldn’t even drive a Zoox if he wanted to; the vehicles don’t have steering wheels. (Hence, them not being cars at all.)

This level of complexity is called Level 5 in the automated vehicle industry. For reference, the popular assisted driving feature on Tesla cars is classified as Level 2.

It will be awhile before everyday consumers get to ride in a Level 5 Zoox vehicle. The regulatory framework for fully automated vehicles still needs to be worked out.

But in the meantime, Zoox’s Level 3 autonomous cars — yes, these ones are cars — can be found driving themselves around Las Vegas, San Francisco and Seattle, with human passengers riding along, ready to take the wheel at any moment. 

Zoox’s vehicles use light detection and ranging sensors (LIDAR, for short) to create three-dimensional maps of their surroundings in real time. The LIDAR sensors work in conjunction with radar and optical cameras to refine their 3-D mapping, and the cumulative data informs the vehicle’s on-board navigation system.

Safety first

The prospect of fully automated vehicles might seem unsettling to some, but it stands to be even safer than our current roadway system. Humans, for all their great qualities, are notoriously bad drivers. The wide array of sensors on Zoox vehicles will give them a better sense of their surroundings than a human could ever hope to achieve with her own eyes and ears. And software systems aren’t prone to texting and driving or other such distractions.

“I’m looking forward to that day where we wonder how we ever accepted and tolerated 94 percent of crashes being caused by human error,” Evans says.

Many of the crashes caused by humans occur when they make complicated maneuvers, such as three-point turns and U-turns, Levinson adds.

“Not only can Zoox automated vehicles see everything all the time, we also have 270 degree coverage on every corner of the vehicle.”

Levinson explains, referring to the cameras and sensors mounted on the four corners of the vehicle. “So we can even see around objects.”

A more equitable transportation system

If you’re excited about Zoox fully automated vehicles, don’t get your hopes up about owning one in the future. Zoox vehicles are not for public consumption. Rather, Zoox will operate akin to a taxi service.

The end goal is not just a successful automated vehicle company, but a complete dismantling of car culture as we currently know it.

“We are challenging personal car ownership, something that is ingrained in the psyche of this nation,” Evans says. “And we are challenging this openly and proudly, because we believe the benefits for society outweigh the idea of people having as many cars as they want.”

Moving to a system like Zoox’s will help create a more equitable society, she adds. Transportation access is not evenly distributed, with many disadvantaged communities lacking access to reliable transportation. Services such as Zoox can provide it for them.

But the end of car ownership has even more profound effects than that. It could mean more communal green spaces, fewer emissions, less noise pollution, more pedestrianism and a general increase in quality of life.

“We want to think about this as transportation as a service,” Evans says. And that service is potentially world-changing.

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