Ground-Up Design And The Future Of Transportation

Part 1 In A Conversation With Zoox’s Jesse Levinson

This article is the first in a three-part series that comes from a recent interview with Jesse Levinson, CTO and founder of Zoox. In this installment, Levinson discusses the current state of the automotive industry and the importance of a “ground-up” approach to making a meaningful impact.

The automotive industry is roughly 130 years old. Please share your vision of where it’s going and specifically why “ground up” is so important.

Jesse Levinson: We have over two cars per family in the United States right now. At some point in the not-too-distant future, that’s going to sound kind of ridiculous. It’s not that nobody ever needs to own a car. But imagine that you could own and operate a fleet of electric, autonomous people movers, so that when you wanted to go from somewhere to somewhere else in the city, instead of having to drive your own car and look for parking, you could just hail it from your phone and take it to wherever you want to go. And if that experience could be safer and cleaner and more enjoyable and even cheaper than ride-hailing is today, a lot of people will not only switch from ride-hailing to that but even start switching from driving their own car to that much, much better model.

Zoox is unusual in the autonomous industry in that we started the company with a fairly ambitious product idea, business idea and scope. And the insight there was that the opportunity to use autonomous technology is so much greater than features that you can add onto cars that you sell to people. Electric cars can be much better — faster, smoother and quieter, so that’s a wonderful evolution of the automobile. Fundamentally, though, they are still cars, and they’re very similar to cars from the last 100 years. That’s OK to an extent, but what we realized is there’s an opportunity with autonomous technology to remove the requirement that everybody needs to own a car or even multiple cars.

We decided to build a ground-up vehicle because cars were not architected to be fully autonomous. They don’t have the shape, they don’t have the interior experience. They don’t have the safety features. But there are really dozens of reasons why the traditional automobile is not well suited to being a taxi that’s operating 16-plus hours a day, seven days a week, moving people around cities all day and all night long. That’s why we took this approach when we started the company in 2014.

It’s unusual and it’s expensive to build a company that can get all that technology working together, let alone building the vehicles and deploying them and scaling them. But we knew that the opportunity was so vast — not just economically but in terms of what it can do for our cities and the safety and comfort of people who used ground transportation every day — that we figured it was worth a shot and we were going to give it our best. We’re seven-plus years into it now. It’s incredibly exciting that we’re so close to getting these things on public roads and we’ve been able to show the world a little bit of a take as to what it’s going to look like.

What are some trends you’ve seen in attitudes toward car ownership and openness of transportation — particularly in America, where automobile ownership has historically been seen as a symbol of success?

Levinson: I think car ownership is definitely part of the American story, but it’s really amazing to see how quickly consumer sentiment is shifting — and that’s even before autonomous technology is widely available. I think ride-hailing has already made people realize that in a lot of situations, you don’t need to be driving your own car. The trouble with ride-hailing is that it’s an inconsistent experience. It’s a little bit odd if you think about getting in the back seat of a stranger’s car, and it’s actually very expensive because you’re literally having to pay somebody else to drive you around. But even with those caveats, it is changing consumer sentiments.

We’re excited that when we get this technology out there and we’re able to scale it, it’ll become even less and less compelling for people to feel like they need to own and drive their own car. Again, we’re not looking at replacing the idea of car ownership, and that’s certainly not going to happen overnight. But when you look at the industry over decades, there’s a real opportunity for a very significant kind of phase change in the way the landscape looks over the next couple of decades. And we’re excited to help accelerate that transition.

At what point do you think we’ll see critical mass toward this transition?

Levinson: One of the interesting things about that is that I don’t think you can necessarily pinpoint a single year. Consider smartphones. The adoption of smartphones was actually a fairly gradual process. There were lots of smartphones in the early 2000s. They were not good, but for people who needed the ability to read and send emails on the go, they were a godsend. They were very clunky. They were very slow. By today’s standards, they were a joke. But they still enabled a certain type of a use case that was very helpful to many folks. The iPhone came along in 2007 and really shook things up, because it completely changed the concept of what a smartphone could be and how you could interact with it.

The iPhone is one of the inspirations for the way we approach autonomy at Zoox, because what Apple realized, in 2005 and 2006 when they were developing the first iPhone, was the opportunity to transform the phone industry could not come through software or hardware alone. If Apple had written a new operating system for a Blackberry phone, maybe it would have been better than the Blackberry operating system. And it maybe would have been a slightly better device. But it still would have been fundamentally a similar kind of thing. And, conversely, if Apple had made a new hardware device, but it was going to run Windows mobile from 2007, I don’t think that would have changed the world either.

The insight there, of course, was that you needed a custom form factor, a custom user interface. The idea was making the most of the device’s screen and adding multi-touch with capacitive, touch-sensing technology, basically making a computer in your pocket that was easier to use than existing smartphones but vastly more capable, vastly more powerful. It was the first time you were able to experience most of the web on a phone. It’s the hardware and software integration that enabled that.

Our view is very similar with autonomy. Trying to take a regular car and make it autonomous is like taking a Blackberry phone from 2007 and writing a new operating system for it.

The analogy is maybe even stronger than that. Because on top of the integration of the hardware and the software from a functionality and user experience perspective, we also have to consider that we’re building a safety-critical device. Driving is a dangerous activity. Forty thousand Americans have been killed every year in car crashes. When you also add the safety layer, you think about how much more you can prove that your entire platform is safe. And when you own the hardware, the software and the vehicle platform itself, it becomes all the more compelling to build ground-up with what’s now called a robotaxi, versus trying to shoehorn some autonomous technology onto cars that were never designed for that purpose.

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

In the next installment, Levinson discusses some of the specific innovative design choices a “ground-up” approach enables, as well as the role of intelligent systems and mission-critical AI.

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