Amazon today announced it is acquiring Zoox, a startup developing autonomous vehicle systems aimed at ride-hailing applications. Neither company disclosed terms of the deal, but according to the Information and the Financial Times, the purchase price is over $1.2 billion.

It’s Amazon’s biggest bet yet on autonomous technologies — whether vehicular, aeronautic, or industrial. Last February, Amazon contributed to driverless car and truck startup Aurora’s $530 million series B round. In March 2012, Amazon acquired warehouse robotics startup Kiva Systems for $775 million.

With Zoox, Amazon — which delivers more than 10 billion items worldwide each year — is looking to cut costs. Analysts at Morgan Stanley estimate self-driving technology could save the tech giant over $20 billion a year on shipping as it becomes a formidable competitor to companies like UPS, DHL, and FedEx. By 2023, Amazon is expected to spend $90 billion on logistics, expanding its truck trailer, ocean freighter, last-mile delivery van, and cargo jet networks.

“Zoox is working to imagine, invent, and design a world-class autonomous ride-hailing experience,” said Amazon global consumer CEO Jeff Wilke in a statement. “Like Amazon, Zoox is passionate about innovation and about its customers, and we’re excited to help the talented Zoox team to bring their vision to reality in the years ahead.”

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The story so far

Zoox was founded in 2014 by Australian artist-designer Tim Kentley Klay and Jesse Levinson, son of Apple chair Arthur D. Levinson, who was developing self-driving technology at Stanford. In December 2018, Zoox was first to gain approval to provide driverless transport services to the public in California. And in January 2019, the company appointed former Intel chief strategy officer Aicha Evans CEO, signaling a shift in priorities from conceptualization to commercialization.

Foster City, California-based Zoox had raised over $990 million in venture capital at a multibillion-dollar valuation, and it appeared to be making progress toward a commercial launch before live testing of its level 3 vehicles ground to a halt during the pandemic. The company recently announced it would begin deploying its autonomous Highlanders in Las Vegas. It has a permit from the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles to transport passengers autonomously and has submitted documents to the California DMV showing its 58 vehicles drove 67,015 autonomous miles in 2019 in San Francisco.

Zoox had hoped to move beyond retrofitted Highlanders to fully custom cars that could be summoned by customers via a smartphone app. The roughly BMW i3-sized electric vehicles would have used cameras and four lidar sensors for perception, with each one covering 270 degrees. The vehicles were also designed with four-wheel steering, active four-wheel suspension, dual power trains, and dual batteries with a combined capacity larger than that of most single-car batteries today.

The idea was to reduce congestion through fleet management and to minimize trips back to base stations for charging overnight. Zoox’s shuttle-like car — which was fully driverless — was designed to operate in a shared fleet in order to maximize efficiency and cut down on ride trip times.

The focus on efficiency likely appealed to Amazon’s newfound conservationist sensibilities. In February 2019, Amazon led a $700 million funding round in Rivian, a Michigan-based startup developing electric pickup trucks, which Amazon claims will save an estimated 4 million metric tons of carbon per year by 2030. Amazon plans to have 10,000 of Rivian’s vehicles making on-the-road deliveries as early as 2022 and 100,000 vehicles on the road by 2040.

Plans

According to Amazon, Zoox founders Evans (CEO) and Levinson (CTO) will continue to lead Zoox as a standalone business, and Amazon will help “bring their vision of autonomous ride-hailing to reality.” Amazon gave little away in terms of how it will leverage the technology. It could convert Zoox’s planned robo-taxis into automated delivery vans further down the road, a task it certainly has the expertise to pull off. According to Reuters, Amazon holds more than 210 transportation-related patents, including a 2017 patent to provide on-demand transportation services through a network of autonomous vehicles.

Zoox previously said it was demonstrating its vehicle to partners and insiders behind closed doors, but the next phase of its deployment plans remain unclear. A few months ago, Zoox reportedly laid off 10% of its 1,000-person workforce days after letting go of 120 contract workers, moves it blamed on the economic fallout from the pandemic. It also said it would pay Tesla an undisclosed amount of monetary damages and undergo an audit to settle a trade secret theft lawsuit filed last year in which Tesla claimed some former employees brought proprietary information to Zoox.

According to the Information, a majority of Zoox investors — among them Lux Capital, DFJ, Primavera Capital, and Atlassian cofounder Michael Cannon-Brooks’ Grok Ventures — will see a return from the purchase. Still, the reported $1 billion price tag supports the notion that autonomous vehicle development remains expensive. Ford and Volkswagen partner Argo AI recently closed a $2.6 billion round at a $7.25 billion valuation. In May, Didi Chuxing’s self-driving unit nabbed $500 million, led by SoftBank’s Vision Fund 2. And in March, Waymo managed to secure a $750 million extension, bringing its first external round to $3 billion.

The race has taken on greater urgency as the pandemic roils the economy. While startups like Gatik, Optimus Ride, TuSimple, and Nuro have escaped the worst of it so far, well-financed ventures — including Cruise, Kodiak Robotics, and Ike — have shed hundreds of employees collectively.

Analysts predict the health crisis and its effects will result in consolidation, tabled or canceled launches, and shakeups across the autonomous transportation industry. In something of a case in point, Ford pushed the unveiling of its self-driving service from 2021 to 2022, and Waymo CEO John Krafcik told the New York Times the pandemic delayed work by at least two months.

According to Boston Consulting Group’s Brian Collie, broad commercialization of AVs won’t happen before 2025 or 2026 — at least three years later than originally anticipated.

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