June 26th, 2020 by Zachary Shahan
It seems like just yesterday that I wrote “it seems like every week I’m learning about another autonomous driving firm — or relearning about one.” Ah, yes, it was. We’ve got news again today — big news — about a company that we only briefly mentioned three times by my count. In that last article, though, we did note that it was reportedly in talks with Amazon about a potential acquisition — and that’s what the news is today.
Zoox, based out of California (of course), has been working for years on autonomous ride-hailing technology. It was valued at $3 billion in 2018.
Zoox CEO Aicha Evans and Zoox cofounder and CTO Jesse Levinson will continue to lead Zoox, and Amazon highlighted that right in the subheading to the press release, clearly indicating support for the company’s leadership. Furthermore, the company will retain its autonomy, operating as a “standalone business” as Amazon put it.
Of course, what Zoox gets in this deal is a ton of financial backing. No doubt, that has the Zoox team excited. You can almost hear it in the CEO’s press statement:
“This acquisition solidifies Zoox’s impact on the autonomous driving industry,” said Aicha Evans, CEO of Zoox. “We have made great strides with our purpose-built approach to safe, autonomous mobility, and our exceptionally talented team working every day to realize that vision. We now have an even greater opportunity to realize a fully autonomous future.”
Robotaxis & Self-Driving Delivery Vehicles
Does Zoox have the secret ingredients key to realizing the full potential of robotaxis — and, importantly, before other companies lead the way? That’s anyone’s guess, but I presume Amazon had a decent team doing due diligence on this expensive deal (we don’t actually know how much Zoox cost, mind you, but the Financial Times reported that the total would be $1.2 billion) and it is one of the frontrunners.
There are a few vehicles I see (and notice) pretty much every time I go driving somewhere — Tesla vehicles and Amazon delivery vans. If any company can benefit from self-driving vehicles, it is certainly Amazon. The economic damage and human damage from Amazon laying off an enormous number of drivers would be catastrophic, but the financial benefit to Amazon (and AMZN shareholders) would be monumental. (Note: I don’t hold any shares of Amazon, but the idea is tempting.)
Perhaps the most shocking thing about the news for me is seeing that Zoox is a baby, just 6 years old. That’s younger than the Tesla Model S. It was formed in the year the Tesla Model 3 was first shown to the world.
“Since Zoox’s inception six years ago, we have been singularly focused on our ground-up approach to autonomous mobility,” said Jesse Levinson, Zoox cofounder and CTO. “Amazon’s support will markedly accelerate our path to delivering safe, clean, and enjoyable transportation to the world.”
Rough Times Since 2018
Zoox hasn’t had the smoothest ride since its $3 billion valuation in 2018. Apparently, in 2019, Tesla opened a lawsuit against Zoox and several former Tesla employees for theft of “proprietary information and trade secrets to help Zoox leapfrog past years of work needed to develop and run its own warehousing, logistics, and inventory control operations.” That led to the ousting of then-CEO and cofounder Tim Kentley-Klay.
Despite the bad blood with Tesla — or perhaps related to it in some way — Zoox has two board members with strong ties to Tesla. That would be Steve Jurvetson, one of the earliest investors in both companies, and Laurie Yoler, a former Tesla board member
The coronavirus crisis apparently wasn’t kind on Zoox, or it allowed for a shedding of dead weight. “Zoox cut about 100 jobs, or 10% of its staff in April, just after laying off about 120 contract workers amid California’s shelter-in-place orders,” CNBC reports. “The Wall Street Journal reported in May that Amazon was in advanced talks to buy Zoox for less than its prior $3.2 billion valuation. Deal chatter surfaced even earlier, when The Information reported that the company had hired Frank Quattrone’s Qatalyst Partners to help find a buyer.”
Other Amazon Acquisitions & Investments
Interestingly, Amazon has invested a large chunk of cash into another self-driving startup that Tesla sued for similar reasons it sued Zoox, Aurora. Aurora was founded by Chris Urmson, a longtime leader at Google’s self-driving project (now called Waymo), Sterling Anderson, formerly head of autonomy at Tesla, and Drew Bagnelli, who headed Uber’s autonomy team.
At the end of last month, Aurora’s staff had reportedly doubled in the past year.
In 2019, Amazon also led a $700 million investment in Rivian, an electric truck and SUV startup from Michigan that was founded in 2009 and employed 750 people at the time. It is yet to produce vehicles, but it is widely expected that Amazon could tap into its expertise in order to produce large numbers of electric delivery vehicles for its expansive global shopping kingdom.
Presumably, some mixture of Zoox, Aurora, and Rivian could give Amazon the special sauce needed to continue its reign and keep Jeff Bezos as the world’s richest human. (On the books, anyway. Off the books, many assume that Vladimir Putin is actually the worlds richest human.)
Other contenders in the self-driving vehicle race:
All images courtesy Zoox.
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