No matter what Zoox's wildest dreams are, cars aren't going to start driving themselves overnight. Industry executives and researchers seem to agree that autonomous driving will come in several waves. At last month's Connected Car Expo, Continental North America NAFTA-region president Jeff Klei forecasted that we'll see semi-autonomous cars by 2016, highly autonomous cars by 2020 and fully autonomous cars by 2025.
Other companies and experts have their own ideas about the specific timeframe and on what type of vehicle will define each step. To help head off any confusion, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has fleshed out a general framework. In a policy statement issued in May, it defined a five-level scale beginning at no automation, full driver control (Level 0), moving up to single-focus automation (Level 1), up through multi-function system automation (Level 2), and onward to limited self-driving that still requires some alertness and intervention by the human driver (Level 3).
Level 4 is the highest level of the NHTSA's scale, and it serves as the basis for Zoox's Boz car design. The NHTSA's policy defines Level 4 as follows:
"Full Self-Driving Automation: The vehicle is designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip. Such a design anticipates that the driver will provide destination or navigation input, but is not expected to be available for control at any time during the trip. This includes both occupied and unoccupied vehicles."
Given all the established automakers and brands currently working to bring autonomous driving technology to market one step at a time, Zoox's approach of skipping right over those steps to make an erratic leap at the finish line – a windshield-less, smart chauffeur designed to change the face of transportation as we know it – is more than a little suspect. Then consider that Zoox is essentially a three-person design firm whose founder Tim Kentley-Klay has a long list of animation and commercial credentials but no listed car design experience. Combine that with the fact that Zoox's website lists "preferred partners we would love to talk with," as opposed to "actual industry partners we're working with," and top it off with a car that's called "Boz" because it's "for bosses," and well, you get the picture. It looks very interesting on paper, but we won't be surprised if we never hear the terms "Zoox" or "Boz" after 2013.
Still, Zoox does have some notable ideas worth considering. As a design-driven creative team, Zoox approaches autonomous design not from the perspective of adding self-driving technologies to traditional cars, but from the perspective of using autonomy as the starting point of a new type of mobility.
If you think about it, it's a logical approach. Instead of building an autonomous car based on a car designed for human driving, Zoox redesigns the car based entirely around autonomous driving. Certain components that are car standards (windshields and headlights, for instance) become obsolete within a fully autonomous framework. Such cars "see" for themselves using onboard sensors, and perhaps car-to-car communications and infrastructure-derived data, so providing clear vision to occupants is no longer a necessity.
"The first element you may notice is what's absent: the front and rear windshield," Zoox explains on its website. "This is not to say L4s can't have them – certainly those designed for tourism would – but with this vehicle we make the statement that you now have an option."
"An option brings some pretty cool benefits. Firstly, we gain thermal, aerodynamic and acoustic efficiencies. The thermal load lost through the windshield is significant, requiring energy intensive climate control systems, as well as a number of ancillary systems to keep the glass clear. We remove this inefficiency."
By getting rid of windshields, which are really little more than a luxury in a self-driving car, the Boz design becomes lower, smoother and more fully governed by aerodynamics. The design also drops hardware such as the defogging system and windshield wipers.
Other aspects of the Boz design that sprint away from convention include the lack of a hood (it's powered by motors at each wheel, so it doesn't require a traditional engine bay), and its front-rear symmetry. The latter empowers "bi-directionality."
"A Zoox L4 will never need to do a 3-point-turn, or even a U-turn," Zoox explains. "And if it drives into a driveway or blocked off road, it can simply depart the opposite way. This efficiency is enabled by 360-degree machine vision and electric motors that can spin in either direction equally well."
To ensure safety and awareness for those inside and outside the car, Zoox imagines active spoilers with integrated LED lights lifting at the rear based on the direction the vehicle is moving. The spoiler will give the car a slightly more traditional front-rear look. A set of front LEDs lets other cars and pedestrians see the Boz from head on.
Inside the Boz, the user experience is more akin to sitting in a train car than a traditional automobile. Drivers become passengers, or as Zoox prefers, "commanders." They are freed from focusing on traffic and road signs, able to enjoy the commute by working on a laptop, watching video content, or even augmenting a poor night's sleep with a power nap.
Zoox's fully autonomous design eliminates much of the space-intensive interior hardware, such as the steering wheel, dashboard and pedals. With the help of a B-pillar-less body, this creates an airy interior designed for comfort and relaxation. The two rows of seats face each other, encouraging more natural interaction and conversation. Each seat appears to be equipped with a display that can presumably connect to the Internet, play video content, etc. The display can also help ease the drastic transition from driver's seat to passengers' lounge by displaying a picture of the road ahead, providing peace of mind to those that may be anxious about ceding vehicle control over to a machine.
The Boz design is based (on paper) around a carbon-composite build that starts with a skeletal frame planted atop a forged carbon-composite floor. The weight of the batteries is split into four quadrants around the floor. The frame is hollow, allowing for the wiring from the camera, radar, ultrasonic and laser sensors to be routed inside. A secondary frame connects the outer frame to the interior, and foam wedged between the frames provides insulation. Those underpinnings are topped with carbon-composite body panels.
While its ideas are quite ambitious (or maybe just "out there"), Zoox doesn't imagine that every car on our highways, byways and backroads will become fully autonomous ... at least not any time soon. It sees a Boz-like autonomous car as a solution for city commuting, admitting that traditional cars will remain better-suited for longer journeys well into the future. It envisions the Boz filling the role of a zero-emissions, point-to-point transportation solution and says that it does not intend to offer cars for sale, but as an on-demand car service available at the poke of a smartphone app.
Should it ever develop a working vehicle out of its bold ideas and pretty renderings, Zoox plans to implement them in a gradual manner, starting by testing a single vehicle on a single city street, and slowly spreading to a fleet of vehicles commuting citywide. It plans to finalize an engineering team next year with hopes of getting its design to the street by 2021.
That eight-year timeframe seems quite ambitious, but Zoox has its own answer for that, too. It likens the four-motor design of the Boz to four motorcycles with identical hardware driving in unison, saying the car's quadratic symmetry means that it "need only specify 25 percent of the vehicle to define 100 percent." Design, testing and tooling become more efficient than designing the multitude of components for a traditional asymmetrical car.
It would be downright negligent to take what Zoox says at face value, but we do think that at least some of the concepts of the Boz design and car-sharing model will show up on the market eventually. We're just not convinced Zoox will be the one to bring them, and we're not convinced it'll happen by 2021. If nothing else, however, the start-up is jumpstarting a conversation about the revolutionizing effect autonomous technology will have on car design and commuting. Not a bad thing.