• Tuesday, October 22, 2019

What it's like to ride in a Zoox: the $US3b, Aussie-backed robo-taxi

Discussion in 'World Affairs' started by TruthTheOnlyDefense, Jul 13, 2019.

  1. TruthTheOnlyDefense

    TruthTheOnlyDefense BANNED

    Sep 12, 2017
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    Mike Cannon-Brookes is among the heavyweight Australian investors backing this autonomous vehicle company. Does it live up to the hype?

    Zoox is building its own car from the ground up.CREDIT:PHOTOGRAPH: SHAUGHN AND JOHN

    I am standing outside a nondescript office complex on a street corner in San Francisco, about a block away from the well-known Fisherman’s Wharf tourist attraction. I need to get to a meeting across town, so I open an app on an iPhone I’m holding and request a car to pick me up. Moments later, a metallic black Toyota Highlander SUV turns the corner and pulls up beside me.

    So far, it’s an unremarkable chain of events for this day and age. Except for one thing: nobody is driving the vehicle. The car is a ‘test mule’ for Zoox, the self-driving start-up that was co-founded by Melbourne entrepreneur Tim Kentley-Klay, and backed by some heavyweight Australian investors - most notably Atlassian billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes.

    These test vehicles, which are fitted out with multiple cameras and tiny sensors, have been roaming sections of the Bay City for nearly two years now. They have clocked up and recorded tens of thousands of miles ahead of a planned launch of a commercial service by Zoox in 2020.

    I get in the car, and away we go. To comply with California regulations there is a person riding in the front seat with his hands hovering about an inch above the steering wheel. In the front passenger seat there is also a software analyst monitoring the environment and surroundings. And in the back cabin alongside me is a company marketing representative, outlining the experience Zoox hopes to provide its customers, and also making sure I don’t take any photos.

    The test vehicles are fitted out with multiple cameras and tiny sensors.CREDIT:ILLUSTRATION: JOE BENKE

    We ride around San Francisco for about 25 minutes. The two and a half mile trip takes us through Chinatown and North Beach, two of San Francisco’s hilliest and densest neighbourhoods.

    The car successfully navigates the often challenging conditions, including a tricky left hand turn at a six-way intersection with a pedestrian crossing.

    At another point, the software powering the vehicle recognises a person on the sidewalk. This person is not about to cross the road - my human eyes can see this - he is merely getting something out of his car.

    But the vehicle still slows down to a halt. It seems unduly cautious, but that is the way things need to be if Zoox is going to realise its goals.

    The trip is scenic and pleasant and would be completely run of the mill if it weren’t for the fact that this vehicle was driving itself. And, while unqualified to be too declarative in any judgment, I am left with the impression that Zoox’s vaunted technology justifies the hype.

    There has always been something outlandish, unbelievable, about this company and its enormous goals.

    The company's goal is to develop fleets of robo-taxis that will permanently roam the streets in cities like San Fransisco in the not too distant future. UBS estimates that market will be worth $US2 trillion ($2.86 trillion) by 2030. But even if it succeeds Zoox will face stiff competition from the world's biggest tech companies, and established automakers for a slice of this money.

    Scepticism has encircled Zoox from the moment it was founded. And following some notably nefarious start-up implosions in the US, and the company's own speed bumps, it continues to linger.

    There has always been something outlandish, unbelievable, about this company and its enormous goals. Why would the head of an animation studio in Melbourne, with apparently no experience in software or robotics, be behind an effort to develop a complete reimagining of the car, from the ground up?

    And why are investors - highly respected ones, no less - clamouring to give it hundreds of millions of dollars to pull that off? A ride in the test mule, and a visit to its manufacturing plant 50 kilometres south in Silicon Valley, provides some answers.

    Blackbird Ventures Co-founder Niki Scevak

    The story of Zoox
    For all intents and purposes the Zoox story begins in 2014. That year, Niki Scevak, the co-founder of the Sydney-based tech investment firm Blackbird Ventures was introduced to animator Tim Kentley (who would later add the Klay suffix to his name) by a mutual acquaintance in Melbourne.

    Scevak was stuck by Kentley-Klay's vision for a radical re-imagining of the automobile. Over the ensuing months, he tracked Kentley-Klay’s progress as he moved to California and linked up with Jesse Levinson, a Stanford PhD in computer science who happens to be the son of Apple chairman Arthur Levinson.

    Blackbird, barely a year old itself at the time, was set up to invest in software businesses. But venture capital investing is about hitting home runs, and Scevak was convinced that Kentley-Klay’s idea at least had the potential to be an enormous success. So in 2014, when Kentley-Klay and Levinson formed Zoox and raised $US2 million in seed capital, Blackbird tipped in $US500,000.

    The company has one of the grandest ambitions we’ve seen.

    Nikki Scevak, Blackbird Ventures
    “On the face of it, we are investing in a months-old company at an astronomical valuation that is competing against Google, Tesla and the world’s largest automotive companies,” Scevak wrote to his investors at the time. “On the other hand, the company has one of the grandest ambitions we’ve seen, fascinating insights into how to bring that vision to reality and an extremely high quality team that have created some of the largest breakthroughs in autonomous vehicles."

    There was little pushback from Blackbird’s own backers over the investment, with one glaring exception: Cannon-Brookes, a university friend of Scevak’s who’d put money into Blackbird’s first fund, was lukewarm on the idea.

    Over the next four years, Zoox refined its vision for a fleet of autonomous, electric-powered vehicles with no steering wheel, capable of moving in both directions, available for hire through an Uber style ride-hailing app.

    It built its first prototypes, tested them extensively on private roads, and then got its test mules on the streets of San Francisco. The company emerged from stealth mode, Kentley-Klay began to speak publicly about his vision for a self-driving vehicle: not a car, but something that succeeds the car, in the same way the automobile replaced the horse and carriage.

    The Zoox hype began to build, and Cannon-Brookes’ belief in the company strengthened dramatically. When Zoox went on to raise its second major round of financing (in a deal first reported by this newspaper) the billionaire put $100 million of his own money in and joined the company’s board.

    That was nearly a year ago now, and Cannon-Brookes says his belief in Zoox's potential has not wavered. “Absolutely as bullish now, if not probably more, than I was at that point,” he says.

    Mike Cannon-Brookes, co-founder and chief executive officer of Atlassian Corp, is a big supporter.CREDIT: BLOOMBERG

    "This is still the most ambitious company I have ever been associated with. This is a crazily challenging thing they are trying to do. "

    His message for the sceptics? "It’s easy to be sceptical about people who are attempting something incredibly ambitious. They are not unfounded, but I believe they will be proven wrong."

    The enormous funding round seemed to set Zoox up nicely for its next phase of growth, giving Kentley-Klay and his cohorts $US500 million to play with, and valuing the company at $US3 billion. But only a couple of weeks after the deal closed there was another big twist: Kentley-Klay was abruptly removed as CEO.

    The ouster seemed to catch everyone from Australia who was connected to the company by surprise.

    And it clearly shocked the man himself. In a series of tweets in the hours after his firing, Kentley-Klay bemoaned “Silicon Valley up to its worst tricks” and claimed “the board chose a path of fear, optimising for a little money in hand at the expense of profound progress for the universe".

    Kentley-Klay declined to comment for this story. His departure from Zoox remains largely unexplained. Sources say he is now at peace with the situation. And with his personal wealth, on paper, estimated at over $1 billion, few could blame him.

    The Camberwell Grammar and Swinburne University graduate is no longer on the Zoox board, but remains a significant shareholder in the business.