The already-competitive world of autonomous cars and the technology that drives them is seeing another tech behemoth enter the field: Amazon.
The Seattle-based shopping and cloud computing giant, which owns companies ranging from Whole Foods Market to IMDb, purchased Zoox, an autonomous vehicle company focused on retrofitting cars with their technology, in a sale announced on June 26, 2020.
Amazon executive Jeff Wilke said in a press statement that "Zoox is working to imagine, invent, and design a world-class autonomous ride-hailing experience," and that Amazon is “excited to help the talented Zoox team to bring their vision to reality in the years ahead." The deal is worth $1.2 billion, reported the Wall Street Journal. The WSJ also notes that "The plan is for Zoox to continue development of its robot taxi, an electric vehicle that it has been working on, with Amazon investing money in Zoox so it can deploy these vehicles."
The purchase raised eyebrows in the world of self-driving, with Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeting a few hours after the news that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is "a copy [cat emoji] haha."
There are two key questions to understand Amazon's Zoox acquisition:
- What is Zoox?
- What does Amazon want with it?
What is Zoox? Like many tech companies, Zoox started with big dreams. Founded in 2014 by an artist with no technical background, Tim Kentley-Klay, and a self-driving expert with family roots at Apple, Jesse Levinson, the company originally saw itself as an all-in-one package. Zoox would build self-driving technology, build custom vehicles, and then run their own ridesharing service.
A glowing 2018 profile in Wired notes that the company at that time had around 500 employees, drawn from high-profile organizations like Tesla, Nvidia, and NASA. Those employees seemed to be mostly focused on developing the technology aspect of the company’s mission, and it seems like they were making serious progress.
“We’re handling the spectrum of complicated situations you need to drive in in a city like San Francisco,” Levinson told Wired at the time. “We have built the software and hardware frameworks that can handle this.”
Zoox backed up its claims with a video shared exclusively with Wired showing a Toyota Highlander rigged with Zoox sensors and computers performing some driving tasks prone to giving flesh-and-blood commuters headaches: maneuvering around double-parked cars and making left turns in traffic. While that specific video doesn't appear to be online, the company has a slew of more recent videos that back up its claims, like the video you see below:
As Zoox grew, the company’s needs changed. In 2019, the artist Kentley-Klay was out, and in his place came former Intel chief strategy officer Aicha Evans, who was brought on as CEO to help the company transition from a purely technical company to one launching a self-driving ridesharing service by 2020. By that point, Zoox had raised over $750 million in funding.
What happens next — It’s hard to say. Nearly every write-up of Zoox makes sure to mention the company’s “secretive” nature. But there are myriad possibilities.
The Wall Street Journal, which first reported the talks between Amazon and Zoox, mention that getting rid of Kentley-Klay could have cost the company, saying that the non-technical artist “was initially extremely effective at winning over investors, using an air of mystery in the press and possessing a showman’s knack for stoking excitement."
While Evans was able to raise $200 million, that amount might not have been enough to fund Zoox’s ambitions of becoming a triple-threat of an electric car company with self-driving cars that was also doing ride-sharing.
What Amazon wants with Zoox — Whatever the case, Amazon found a company that it was eager to incorporate into its existing framework. Meanwhile, the purchase has already triggered several high-ranking employees leaving for a one-time competitor, Alphabet’s Waymo.
While few things are truly out of reach for Amazon, a company that has seen stock prices soar during the coronavirus pandemic, top employees leaves suggest that it's unlikely the tech giant will be pursuing Zoox’s exact business model. Amazon could incorporate Zoox technology into drone delivery program Prime Air.
Or it could become, as Musk teased, a copy-cat, using Zoox's cutting-edge technology to leapfrog over companies that have spent years working on the self-driving tech to become an immediate player in an industry that has seen a lot of boasting but no winner.
Whatever happens to Zoox, all sides will likely be able to say that its technology was first-rate. As late as May 2020, the company was showing off impressive videos of its technology navigating busy San Francisco streets.
What happens next with these abilities is up to Amazon.