Long-time stealth startup Zoox, a company founded by a radical Australian designer and a Stanford roboticist finally unveiled their new design that they feel is not merely the car of the future, but the thing that comes after the car.

Most teams building self-driving cars (either to act as private cars or as hire-a-ride taxis) who have put all their work on the hard problem of making a safe and working self-driving software system, adapting it to existing vehicles. Zoox took on the challenge of designing a vehicle from scratch, feeling that would let them really do it right in order to win the future of mobility.

Zoox’s mission, from day one, was to design a custom vehicle from the ground up to be a robotaxi and only a robotaxi, forgetting all conventional wisdom about cars. Teams like Waymo have instead modified existing vehicles for their first deployments. GM/Cruise also began with modified Bolts but later displayed a vehicle with superficial similarity to the Zoox, and Zoox of course has been doing all their on-road testing in modified standard vehicles while developing this vehicle in parallel.

The design bears a resemblance to many other robotic vehicles meant for group transit. That includes a high-roof somewhat boxy (or more correctly trapezoidal) shape, sliding doors and low floor for easy access, and social seating, with people facing one another rather than in rows like a car. I’m calling this rough form a “Rozium” (Robotic Trapezium) and it can also be found in most PRT pods and shuttles starting with ULTra at Heathrow, Navya, Easymile, Olli, and most recently in a bulkier form in the Cruise Origin.

Zoox’s core differences though, are not in the shape, but in these design elements:

  1. It is completely symmetrical, having no front or back, and moves equally in both directions. All components are duplicated, including motors and sensors.
  2. The roof and sensor mountings have been designed to give the sensors a better view. There are 2 LIDARs (Hesai and Velodyne) at each corner, one looking out, the other looking down to try to get a good view with no blind spots. There are also 3 cameras at each corner and two on top — and 5 radars per corner to boot.
  3. The LIDARs have the 150m range of 905nm devices, which is a bit low for full-speed highway driving, but sufficient for urban.
  4. There is 4 wheel independent suspension under computer control, to smooth out the ride.
  5. Passengers face one another, allowing for a more social experience.
  6. The interior is spartan, not the overcrowded complex dashboard of current cars and some robotaxi designs. Just a small display and charging port. The seats mix taxi goals (ease of cleaning and able to handle heavy use) with car design.
  7. The electric vehicle design allows a low center of gravity, and combined with wheels moved to the corners of the vehicle, a more flexible interior design with more space for the same footprint.
  8. Each wheel can also turn independently, allowing for an 8.6m turning radius. In many cases, it will not turn at all, when it wants to change direction of travel, it just changes.
  9. The vehicle is narrow and short enough, given that, to handle streets and driveways that might be a challenge for wider vehicles.
  10. Airbags are integrated into the special seats and their enclosing walls for extra crash safety. Zoox claims they designed the seats around safety, rather than trying to add safety to the classical passenger cabin/seat design. As a result, all seats get full protection, unlike most cars which focus on the front seats.
  11. Zoox reports they have passed all crash tests included in the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. Today, most self-driving vehicles can’t pass other parts of the FMVSS though work is underway to modify the standards. In addition, as Zoox will not sell vehicles to other companies if it operates a robotaxi service, it may not be subject to rules like the FMVSS that only cover vehicles that are sold, or it may use an exemption as most custom robotaxis plan to.
  12. While primarily intended for urban travel, it can reach up to 75mph to make use of urban freeways.
  13. Computers and in the floor and 133kwh of batteries are under the seats, sufficient for a full day of taxi operation.
  14. Zoox’s autonomy stack is map-based (like every major player except Tesla) with neural network perception and prediction. They make HD maps before driving any street.
  15. An operations center permits remote humans to solve strategic problems for the vehicle (similar to most teams..) They do not remotely drive them.

Zoox is devoted to the robotaxi plan. Customers will not own a Zoox vehicle, rather they will summon one in a manner similar to Uber, and may share the ride in certain situations. They will also fit well to groups moving together. In this reveal, Zoox has said very little about their operational plan, other than they have done their testing in Las Vegas and San Francisco, two cities they think are plum for robotaxi service.

Competition is not close. Only Waymo hosts a ride service open to the public with robotaxis and no drivers, and that’s only in a limited area, and supervising drivers have returned to expand that area. For a few years, companies will be able to deploy in cities with no other provider, and face no competition. Only once two companies go head to head in the same city (likely San Francisco) will we see that.

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this article was first published in forbes.com