Usually in the high-tech world, a website that makes big promises and consists of nothing but a sleek computer rendering of some revolutionary product is usually a good shorthand for "bullshit." The automotive world isn't much different, as the website for Zoox may or may not prove, depending on what we see at the upcoming LA Auto Show.
All the information on the Zoox site, which is short enough to be distributed by fortune cookie should they have website issues, says
ZOOX IS A LEVEL 4 AUTONOMOUS ELECTRIC VEHICLE COMPANY DEBUTING AT THE LAAS CCE 2013. WE WILL BE UNDER THE RADAR UNTIL THEN. STAY TUNED.
Let's see what we can extract from that bit of copy.
First of all, the “Level 4” business — that’s referring to the NHTSA’s classification of autonomous vehicles. It starts with Level 0, which includes cars with absolutely no autonomous controls at all: think my old Beetle, a Renault 4, or that vintage Alfa you’ve had your eye on. Level 1 is pretty much the minimum for any car made today, as it includes stability control systems and adaptive cruise control. Level 2 is common on luxury cars with things like lane centering working with adaptive cruise control. Level 3 is what most of the Google self-driving cars we see are — autonomous, but with a driver available for occasional/emergency use.
Since Level 3 cars are already pretty damn autonomous, Level 4 is really the peak. It’s reserved for fully autonomous cars, ones where the people inside are not required to provide anything other than the ultimate destination — and I suppose they could even farm that out to a phone app as well. People here are passengers and/or cargo only — free to read or masturbate or whatever with no concern for driving at all.
So, based on the Level 4 claim, we can see that they’re shooting for a pretty high bar, which always makes me a bit suspicious.
The image they’re showing is all but useless as a way to evaluate what they’ve actually got. It’s a car, sure, but it’s a very CG-looking car that seems like something you’d drive to your Lightcycling job if you lived in the Tron universe. It’s hard to assess any innovations from the picture, unless you consider radical new developments in side-marker lighting via electroluminescent strips on wheels especially innovative. And even then they’d probably have to make the front ones amber and the rear ones red.
There’s also the domain name itself, which, based on the .co, could be a Colombian site. But maybe not — .co is often just used when .com wasn’t available.
Over at Popular Mechanics there’s a very good article that uncovers a few more things, though actually finding references to Zoox or whatever they’re doing is tricky. A commenter on the subreddit /r/SelfDrivingCars found that the site seems to be owned by an Australian auto parts company, who appears to share a physical headquarters with a video studio called Crayon.
Popular Mechanics contacted the PR firm that handles the Connected Car Expo and made some references to Zoox. Here’s what the author, Andrew Del-Colle, got back from them:
"Zoox is an Australian start-up launching in 2014 with the aim to be on the road in 2021. Zoox’s vision is to be an autonomous electric vehicle company that fundamentally solves the issues facing urban mobility: congestion, pollution, safety & lifestyle.
Zoox’s vehicles are not owned, you order them on demand. This means when you’re not using it others are, which is great for maximizing resources used.You are also freed from the anxiety of car ownership, parking, insurance, recharging, and owning a product that sits idle most of its life. There will be different models for different needs, the model being unveiled at the LA Auto Show is aimed at global business travelers who value privacy.
Just as the car once transformed the carriage, Zoox will transform the automobile into what we call an ‘auto’ - a fully autonomous electric vehicle. Zoox’s DNA is built on a revolutionary vehicle design that is symmetrical and bi-directional: it can cross the road to pick you up without a 3 point turn, or drive easily in and out of your driveway, enhancing mobility."
… and this just makes things more complicated. So they’re not selling cars to own, but rather are starting a sort of robot car-sharing service? It’s not necessarily a bad idea as such, though I think this idea was really pioneered by the Johnny Cab corporation that did a lot of business on Mars.
Also, if they’re planning on adding some extra level of meaning to “auto” as a term for a car, they’ve got a long confusing road ahead of themselves.
But maybe the biggest point of interest here is the claim that the car will be “symmetrical and bi-directional.” Aside from a Zundapp Janus driving at very low speeds (or maybe the original Pacer prototype, or that crazy limo James May made), I can’t think of a single bi-directional car design that’s ever worked. But, if it could work in any context, it would be as an autonomous car, since once you remove the requirement for bi-directional driving controls, everything gets much easier. Also, with an electric drivetrain, it’s even easier still, since an electric motor should be able to run equally well in either direction.
Also, when they say they’re showing a car at the LA show targeted at “global business travelers who value privacy,” my prediction is that they mean “windowless.”
So, based on the information we have so far, I feel comfortable in saying my opinion is this sounds like vaporware horseshit. Which always makes me wonder what the overall goal is, if that’s the case. Collect investment capital and then disappear? Some sort of money laundering? Human trafficking of people in fake fiberglass car bodies? I have no idea.
Alternately, it could be genuine, and earnest — which doesn’t mean it’s not vaporware, just that the intentions are to actually make it happen. For a company to come out of nowhere with a fully capable Level 4 autonomous car would be absolutely incredible — hence my incredulity.
Plus, there’s some good history of scam/hoax cars at the LA Auto Show, so I’m very curious to see what this may turn out to be. I’d love to see it actually be something real, but I’d counsel minimal breath-retention. Either way, I’ll find out in a month and let everyone know.