A secretive, billion-dollar start-up founded by an Australian designer, is taking its first steps out of the shadows and into the spotlight.
Zoox, the autonomous mobility firm building a driverless vehicle (but not a car) from scratch, which is officially in “stealth mode”, is making noise in Silicon Valley and beyond.
An Uber driverless car heads out for a test drive in San Francisco. Photos: AAP
It’s been on a hiring blitz, and according to reports, is in talks with one of the world’s most powerful tech investors for a fresh injection of capital.
Don’t be surprised to hear more about the firm in coming months. As one well-placed observer of the company’s progress recently put it to me: Zoox is “entering Godzilla mode”. So strap yourselves in and enjoy the ride.
Zoox auto-drive start-up Photo: Twitter
I first came across Zoox last year, the last time it raised money from high-profile US investors. The surprise raising, which seemingly came from nowhere, propelled the firm into the closely watched “unicorn club”, for unlisted tech firms valued at more than $US1billion ($1.25 billion).
At the time, I described its plans as the most “audacious business attempt involving an Australian”, and I’ve seen nothing since then to dissuade me from that claim. The company’s CEO and figurehead, Tim Kentley-Klay, hails from Melbourne. He attended Camberwell Grammar and Swinburne University and previously ran an animation studio.
Last week, reports surfaced in the US media (online outlet Axios had the scoop) that Zoox was in talks with Softbank, the leviathan Japanese wireless carrier and one of the world’s most enthusiastic start-up investors, for an investment of as much as $US1 billion. The funding deal, according to these reports, could value Zoox at more than $US3 billion.
Earlier in the month it emerged that Zoox had snared 17 engineers away from Apple, after the iPhone-making behemoth shelved its own car project, codenamed “Titan”.
The Zoox auto-drive start-up. Photo: Twitter
Zoox’s spokesman (it has one of those now, too) did not respond to requests for comment on its funding plans, or recent hiring activity.
With Apple in retreat and Uber, another key player in self-driving cars, in flux after a series of scandals forced it to change CEOs, the autonomous driving field is looking slightly less crowded that it did a little while ago.
Australian Zoox co-founder Tim Kentley-Klay’s driverless cars should be ready to go in 2020 – if all goes to plan.
Zoox may sense an opening.
Kentley-Klay, who previously rebuffed interview requests, has made at least two public appearances at industry conferences this year, where he shed a little bit more light on the company’s aims.
“Zoox was founded on the insight that AI [artificial intelligence] and mobility is not about incremental adaptation to the automobile,” he said last month at an event hosted by Fortune magazine. “Zoox is not building a better car, we actually think we are building what comes after the car, which is a robot.”
The company is aiming to have whatever it is building (which likely won’t have a steering wheel or a windshield) on the roads and in the market by 2020, and has 270 people working on it, he said. By my count, it is currently advertising for another 78 open positions on its website.
“It’s not a self-driving car any more than an automobile was a horseless carriage,” said Kentley Klay. “It’s a new architecture, ground up, the ecosystem around it.”
He has also indicated the vehicles will be accessed by consumers through an Uber-style ride-hailing service (“shared, on demand, zero emissions”, he says).
Intriguingly, Kentley-Klay revealed that the company already has prototypes, of sorts, on the roads in California.
“We have test mules in the wild,” he said. “We have vehicles up in San Francisco as well, testing, that are Toyota Highlanders that we have made self-driving, which we are using as surrogates to test our systems. And then on our test track we have our own prototype vehicles that we are testing and building.”
Earlier this year, at another conference hosted by Stanford, Kentley-Klay let slip that Tencent, the $470 billion valued Chinese internet giant, had invested in his business.
Having the backing of at least one mega-corporation like Tencent (potentially two, if the Softbank talks amount to anything) will be important. Because Zoox will certainly need a lot of money to fulfil its lofty goals.
And that’s fine.
This is not a lame attempt to make an expensive juicer, or a vending machine service, or even a loss-making internet company. It’s an attempt to fundamentally reinvent mobility, and make future cities work. At a time when time when cynicism about Silicon Valley tech giants and frivolous tech start-ups is on the rise, it’s a refreshingly worthy goal.