Mar 27, 2019

Axios Navigate

Joann Muller

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Today Expert Voices contributor Rob Toews surveys the opportunities for AV technology in construction, agriculture and other major industries.

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1 big thing: Aurora and Zoox map different AV paths

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Aurora Innovation and Zoox are two of the most ambitious companies working on autonomous vehicles, but their strategies couldn't be any more different.

The big picture: The Silicon Valley-based startups are bookends on a wide range of approaches to self-driving technology. No one has landed on the right model to bring them to market and consumers remain skeptical.

  • With experienced leaders and a combined $1.4 billion in capital raised to date, Zoox and Aurora have a better shot at success than most of the 62 companies licensed to test AVs in California.
  • In interviews last week, the companies laid out their strategies to Axios.

Aurora — the self-described "Switzerland of autonomous vehicles" — is designing a platform of software, hardware, and data services that will operate as the "driver" moving people and goods in any type of vehicle, including cars, buses and tractor-trailers.

  • So far it has integrated the system into five vehicle platforms from four different carmakers. Its partners include Volkswagen, Hyundai and China's Byton.

Aurora's strategy hinges on large-scale deployment.

  • All Aurora-powered vehicles, regardless of make or model, share the same sensor suite — meaning they have the same sets of eyes and ears.
  • When the Aurora Driver learns something on one vehicle, it's shared with all Aurora-powered vehicles. They're banking on that collective learning to scale their technology quickly, safely and broadly.
  • "We’re just one driver who happens to be cloned 100,000 times," Aurora co-founder Sterling Anderson tells Axios.

At the other end of the spectrum is Zoox, which plans to build and operate its own robotaxi service.

  • Zoox's focus is mobility as a service in cities like San Francisco.
  • Rather than retrofitting today's cars with AV technology, Zoox is designing its own self-driving electric vehicle. It won't have a steering wheel or pedals; it will have automatic sliding doors and seats that face each other to make ride-hailing easier.
  • "Everybody agrees this is a multitrillion dollar opportunity," Zoox CEO Aicha Evans tells Axios. "There are several problems to solve. We happen to be going after dense urban environments."

Zoox's strategy only needs a few thousand vehicles per city, unlike Aurora, because they are designed to run nonstop.

  • The vehicles can go most of the day on a single charge, and are designed to last more than 400,000 miles.
  • By designing its own vehicle and controlling the software and hardware integration, Zoox says it has more control over safety and deployment.

Yes, but: Zoox has to master everything — the AV system, the vehicle, the fleet management and the rider experience. Betting the farm on robotaxis could be risky if consumers don't embrace them.

  • Aurora is more flexible if the AV market shifts toward other uses, like heavy trucks or delivery vehicles. But it still needs big fleets for the economics to work.

The bottom line: Just as Microsoft went after enterprise customers with cloud computing and Apple wooed consumers with its iPhone, Aurora and Zoox are plotting different strategies in a tech battle that's just beginning to take shape.

2. Interview: Zoox CEO on urban mobility

Illustration: Axios Visuals

A month into her job as the new CEO of self-driving car startup Zoox, Aicha Evans is focused on one thing: Fulfilling the co-founders' mission to reinvent mobility for dense urban environments.

Why it matters: Evans, a former Intel executive, took over as CEO after the board's unexpected dismissal last August of Zoox's creative visionary, Tim Kentley-Klay. While co-founder Jesse Levinson remains president and CTO, it's up to Evans to commercialize the technology amid deflated industry hype about self-driving cars.

I sat down with Evans in her first interview as CEO. Here are some of the takeaways...

With no more distraction at the top, Evans' message to Zoox's 700 employees is simple: "Focus. Focus. Focus. I come from Senegal, West Africa. The odds of sitting here are not high."

  • She is emphasizing that deploying self-driving cars is a difficult challenge and only a handful of companies will survive.

Zoox's mission is to launch a robotaxi service by 2020 with an autonomous electric vehicle it designed and built.

  • The design is finished, and a pre-production prototype is undergoing testing at a private track in California.
  • It will not have a steering wheel or pedals, but will offer automatic sliding doors and carriage-style seating.
  • Meanwhile, Zoox is running tests of its software on retrofitted Toyota Highlander hybrids in San Francisco.

A copy of the vehicle on which Zoox has staked its future is parked behind a badge-secured, floor-to-ceiling drape in the garage of its headquarters in Foster City, California. Evans finds it the perfect place to reflect on the challenge ahead.

So when will it be ready? "When I put my 2 kids in there without me," she says.

3. Startups pivot to AVs for industry

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A growing number of companies are developing AV technology for industries like agriculture, construction, mining and maritime shipping, Zoox's Rob Toews writes for Axios Expert Voices.

Why it matters: Many of these sectors use human-operated vehicles in structured, repetitive, non-public environments: Think tractors driving down rows of crops or pickups shuttling materials across a construction site.

  • Applying AV technology in such constrained settings could be easier than launching self-driving passenger cars — and an equally compelling business case.

By the numbers: These industrial markets are among the largest in the world.

The impact: In these settings, AVs would face fewer deployment challenges compared to passenger AVs, while improving safety, cost and productivity.

Yes, but: More automation in construction, mining and agriculture would entail some job losses, a tension most industries will have to grapple with as AI spreads throughout the economy.

Where it stands: These opportunities attract less buzz than self-driving cars, but a small group of startups is actively targeting them.

  • Built Robotics is piloting autonomous construction vehicles, starting with track loaders for excavation.
  • Bear Flag Robotics retrofits tractors with autonomous technology, enabling farmers to automate tasks like spraying, mowing and ripping.
  • Other companies are working on autonomous maritime vessels. Shone is focusing on large cargo ships, and Sea Machines on a wide range that includes ferries, patrol boats and survey vessels.

Go deeper: Read the full post.

Toews works on strategy at Zoox and is the co-founder of SHFFT, a Stanford-Harvard group interested in the future of transportation.

4. Driving the conversation

Two interesting perspectives on the future of transportation...

The sage observer: Owning a car will soon be as quaint as owning a horse (Kara Swisher — The New York Times)

  • The shift away from private vehicles will happen faster than we think, writes Swisher, a leading high-tech writer.
  • She's been right before — giving up her landline in 1998 and predicting the rise of mobile.
  • "Everything that can be digitized will be digitized," she writes in her opinion piece.

The other side: How many times can Silicon Valley be wrong about cars? (Edward Niedermeyer — The Drive)

  • Niedermeyer takes issue with Swisher's claim that we're at the beginning of the next secular trend in tech, saying she offers no evidence that automobiles are going away.
  • "This decline in car sales looks a lot more like economic cyclicality than the 'digitization' of car ownership that Swisher sees."

ICYMI: Here's the Bloomberg Businessweek cover story that likely sparked the debate, titled "This is what Peak Car looks like" (Keith Naughton and David Welch)

  • For many people, new forms of mobility are making privately owned vehicles obsolete, they write.

My thought bubble: I think Swisher is right. Even in my hometown Detroit — the car capital of the world — things are changing. Parking downtown is a hassle and it's often easier to leave my car at home and just hail an Uber or Lyft.

  • Detroit drivers spend up to 36% of their income on car insurance, according to a University of Michigan study. Owning a car is simply unaffordable for many.
  • In some parts of the country, owning a car is a necessity and will remain so. But in cities, it's becoming harder to justify.
5. 1 artificial thing: virtual backseat driver

Valeo Voyage XR streams an avatar into the back seat. Photo: Valeo

Valeo, a global auto supplier, has figured out how to teleport someone into your vehicle using virtual reality.

Why it matters: If an AV needed help, a safety driver could virtually step in and take control using remote control technology.

Background: In many states where AVs are being tested, teleoperation — or remote guidance — is required for safety.

  • Most AV companies have a teleops command center where trained drivers monitoring multiple screens are prepared to offer guidance if an AV encounters a situation that's confusing, like a construction zone or a double-parked car.
  • Sometimes, an operator is even able to remotely take control of the vehicle to steer around the obstacle and get it back on track.

What's new: Valeo's Drive4U Remote technology can do this, but adds another layer of intervention by simulating the virtual presence of a person in the car with you through its Voyage XR technology. Both innovations were unveiled at CES.

  • During a demo last week at Valeo's Silicon Valley R&D center, I donned a VR headset and held a pair of controllers, then sat in an office chair while my avatar popped into the back seat of a car being driven by a Valeo engineer.
  • Later, we swapped places and she rode along virtually with me, chatting and interacting by displaying her photos on my car's touchscreen.
  • As virtual passengers, we each got to select a personal avatar which was displayed in the car's rearview mirror.

VR is already on its way into cars. Audi and Disney also made a splash at CES with their debut of a new Holoride system that lets passengers play video games or immerse themselves in other experiences.

My thought bubble: It all sounds like a big distraction to me, but I suppose it could be useful when we are passengers, not drivers, in autonomous vehicles.

Valeo has more mundane uses in mind for VR in the car, too.

  • It could be used to train truck drivers, for example, or to let parents keep an eye on teen drivers. 
  • Or, it could even let you to take loved ones on a road trip without having to pay for an extra hotel room.
Joann Muller