About a half-dozen driverless testing deployments. The unveiling of perhaps the most thoughtful self-driving vehicles produced to date. A blockbuster acquisition.
No, the final stretch of 2020 has not lacked for excitement.
In a year in which many wondered whether the pandemic would slow the pace of autonomous-driving developments, the opposite has happened, and the scramble of activity has underscored the potential of robotaxis carrying passengers around urban areas.
It also has brought into sharper focus the business models that companies are formulating to capture a slice of what Zoox CEO Aicha Evans calls a "multitrillion-dollar opportunity."
Zoox may be the most ambitious in its aspirations. From its inception six years ago, the Bay Area startup embarked on a plan to handle the major challenges involved in a ride-hailing business all by itself: Develop its own self-driving system. Create an all- electric, purpose-built vehicle from scratch. Establish its own ride-hailing network.
Those efforts remain a work in progress. But Zoox took a step forward last week with the public unveiling of its four-passenger shuttle with a power supply that can last as long as 16 hours and which has bidirectional driving capability. (See story on Page 8.)
In a business in which the word "innovative" gets tossed around like spare nickels, the Zoox vehicle truly qualifies as such.
It's not hard to imagine the emerging commercial battlegrounds: Someday Zoox will compete with the six-seat Cruise Origin in the dense confines of San Francisco and in Las Vegas with the service that Motional — the brand created by the Hyundai-Aptiv joint venture — is partnered in with Lyft.
While Zoox has a long way to go in cobbling together its own ride-hailing network, the arrival of its vehicle has burnished the company's bona fides and affirmed the go-it-alone approach, Evans said.
"A couple of our competitors said, 'They're just smoking something, I don't know what, over there,' " she said. "They said, 'They can't build a vehicle' or 'It's not going to be autonomous.' There was a lot of 'can't, can't, can't.' … They called it 'vaporware horseshit.' We took it in stride. Our first vehicle, we were code-naming VH1, and then 2, 3. We're now on No. 6. This is a mission-driven, dedicated, resilient company."
Given that Amazon acquired Zoox this year for $1.2 billion, it's natural to wonder whether Zoox's autonomous-driving technology and city- minded vehicle could deliver packages.
Not far-fetched, Evans says, but the company is squarely focused on carrying passengers now.
Aurora, the startup co-founded by veterans of Google, Tesla and Uber, may be Zoox's mirror opposite.
Since its inception, the company has focused on one thing: Building a virtual driver versatile enough to control vehicles ranging from last-mile delivery vehicles to Class 8 trucks.
While robotaxis have been part of Aurora's longer-term strategy, the company has made no secret of its efforts to prioritize trucking applications. Curious, then, that Aurora announced its intentions to acquire Uber's Advanced Technology Group last week, a deal in which Aurora receives ATG and $400 million in exchange for a 26 percent stake in the company.
Uber ATG shuttered its self-driving truck division in July 2018 to concentrate on self-driving taxis.