Driving is the last thing Zoox wants passengers to think about when they step inside one of their vehicles.
To achieve that, the so-called “robotaxi” company has operated with a singular mindset since day one – instead of building a self-driving personal vehicle, Zoox is squarely focused on creating a new mode of passenger transportation only intended for dense urban environments.
“We’re not in the self-driving space. We are in the people-moving space. And we happen to use self-driving technology to realize the vision,” says Zoox CEO Aicha Evans.
Evans, who joined Zoox in 2019 following more than a decade at Intel Corporation, says the company’s unique approach to autonomous driving (building all of the hardware and software in-house, from the ground up), means the entire company is oriented around the same priorities. Safety, above all, is the paramount focus for all departments, from the people building the sensors to the developers coding the software. Evans says that total transparency is critical to effectively manage workflows and keep everyone aligned on the mission.
“Zoox has a very transparent culture – some would argue too transparent. But there’s one plan. Everybody knows it. If you work here, I’m not giving you any opportunity for it to be secret,” says Evans. “We have to have a big focus on collective learning and decision-making, so when we have a tough decision, not only do we give the ‘why’, but also the trade-offs and alternatives.”
Evans joined me as part of Greylock’s Iconversations speaker series to discuss how Zoox has made safety permeate into every aspect of the company culture and operations; why they are building for dense urban environments; and her vision for the future of the “people moving business.”
You can listen or watch the interview at the links below, or listen wherever you get your podcasts
Hi, everyone. Welcome to Iconversations. I’m Reid Hoffman, a general partner at Greylock. Our guest today is Aicha Evans, the CEO of autonomous vehicle company, Zoox. I also have the joy of sharing a board of directors with her, Joby.
Zoox is an outlier in the field for its singular focus on ride-hailing in dense urban environments. The so-called robotaxi is completely built from the ground-up. Zoox is handling all the hardware and software in-house, and the company has an exclusive patent portfolio. All of that made Zoox an attractive acquisition for Amazon, which bought the company in 2020.
Prior to joining Zoox in 2019, Aicha spent 12 years at Intel Corporation, where she held multiple executive leadership roles, including senior vice president and chief strategy officer. Earlier in Intel tenure, Aicha ran the company’s wireless efforts and later led the company’s transformation from a PC centric to a data-centric company. Aicha has a clear knack for guiding teams through transformational moments in technology, and I’m so excited [for] what she and Zoox can accomplish.
With that, let’s get to it. Aicha, thanks so much for joining us today.
Hi, Reid. The pleasure is mine. I’m really tickled that I’m here, and we get to do this today.
Yeah. I’ve been looking forward to this for quite some time. So it’s been an eventful time for Zoox and the autonomous vehicle sector as a whole. Before you get into the specifics of Zoox, how would you characterize the state of the industry today?
Yeah, it’s been very eventful. The way I look at it, I ground myself in two numbers. We talk a lot about the almost 43,000 (actually during the pandemic) fatalities due to car crashes. And obviously, that’s something that we want to change. And in general, computers, and I mean that in a broad sense, are much better than humans at following rules. And we think we can do much better than humans at following rules.
There’s another number we don’t talk about enough, which is that collectively in the United States, we humans drive a hundred million miles before there’s one fatality. And that’s the part that’s hard because humans might not be very good at following rules, but they are very good at dealing with edge cases, things they’ve seen for the first time ever, things that are unpredictable. We accumulate all this knowledge since birth, really.
And so that’s the part that’s hard. So the industry is doing well there. It’s a healthy ecosystem. Several of us will make it. The progress has been slower than we all wanted and imagined, but I’m also grateful for that because if we had known how hard it would be, maybe some of us wouldn’t have startups. And so doing well, but a lot ahead of us to match humans.
Yeah, it’s one of the reasons I use this metaphor of jumping off a cliff and assembling an airplane on the way down because you have to be somewhat kind of crazy to jump off the cliff, but without that craziness, we don’t create the future. And there’s so much, just as you were saying, that can be done. That’s so important on the autonomous thing, saving human lives, making the grid more efficient, solving transportation, all the rest of this stuff.
So let’s move to Zoox. Zoox really stands apart as a very unique and interesting effort in this. And perhaps, the most obvious aspect is that no person behind the wheel, whatsoever. You and other executives of Zoox have said before that if you step into your vehicle and think that you’re about driving, we have failed. What do you mean by that?
I tell people often we’re not in the self-driving space. We are in the people-moving space. And we happen to use self-driving technology to realize the vision. We know that the demand is there because there are companies today that are in the people-moving space. You just happen to have a human driver show up, a stranger in a car. Sometimes, it’s a nice car. Sometimes, it isn’t. Sometimes, it smells good. Sometimes, it doesn’t, and so on and so forth. But we know that inherently humans, especially in dense urban environments, are willing to outsource their movement when it comes to going from point A to point B.
And so for Zoox, that’s what we’re trying to solve for. And we think that self-driving technology is a very good way to do that, but it only works if we can remove the driver totally. And I know that’s a dangerous word. I mean that from a technology standpoint as opposed to a business standpoint. We can get to that because we’ll create lots of other jobs. And so that’s what we’re trying to do. And it makes it difficult because I don’t have a safety driver who can take over and manually drive the vehicle. The computer who sensors, and AI has to do it.
"We're not in the self-driving space. We are in the people-moving space. And we happen to use self-driving technology to realize the vision."
We’ll get to this in more detail, but right now, I think one of the questions is, what kinds of fallback plans [you have], because currently you go, “Okay, well, in these things, a safety driver can take the wheel.” You go, “Okay.” I know that you and all of Zoox are very safety focused and conscious. As for your safety nets, what do they look like?
First, I would start with our mindset. At times, like everybody else, I feel the pressure. We will not get on public roads with our purpose-built vehicle until we feel and can demonstrate from a quantifiable standpoint that we’re ready.
That’s one. Second, this is why it takes you back to the story around ground-up. Since inception, Zoox has been extremely consistent in its mission and its strategy and how it’s trying to achieve it. And I think a lot of people think we’re not partnering with somebody to build the vehicle because we’re those impetuous Silicon Valley people who think we can do everything ourselves. That’s actually not true.The level of redundancy, the level of tweaking traditional systems and components that we needed in preparation for a vehicle that requires no manual driving is absolutely key. And today, partners are maybe a little bit more willing to do that, but back then, they were like, “Are you nuts?”
I think there’s a journalist who even nicknamed us vaporware and we actually embrace that. So that’s in the ground-up vehicle, and I can talk about a lot of safety innovations we have in there that are geared towards that.
The third thing is our sensor architecture. We basically use almost every sensor available that can help us, and many of them in a redundant fashion because we basically have to be fail-operational when it comes to safety.
The fourth thing is our choice of deployment. We’re probably going to be a little bit of the snail in the ecosystem because we will really go route by route and ODD by ODD before we scale up, because we know that on the other side, it’s not just getting a bad grade. It’s customers not embracing your product.
Last but not least, at full commercial scale, we have what’s called a teleoperation center. Think about it for airplanes and airlines. And at that teleoperation center, they can see the video feed for every single vehicle, as well as the perception output. And they are a few seconds ahead. This is for basically two purposes. If the vehicle needs help, it will call and say, “Hey, in front of me, down there, I see something that I don’t know how to handle. Can you help me?” Or it says, “Hey, I’m predicting that I’m going to have to break a rule. Do I have permission to break that rule? Yes or no?” Importantly, though that the vehicle when it needs help will get breadcrumbs for guidance, the vehicle is still in charge of the driving and deciding whether to proceed or not. And then second, when it breaks a permission or a rule, same thing, it is still in charge of saying, “Yeah, I got permission, but given what’s on around me, is it still safe to do it or not?” So those are the layers that we have built in.
Well, in a moment we’re going to go to your background, which I think is already showing its engineering roots. But one of the other things I think you guys (along many leadership parameters) are thinking very intensely about the urban environment and what it is to be a new kind of vehicle platform within a city. So say a little bit about how you see the urban environment, how you fit in, what are the things that will go there? And we’ll just come back to Zoox and the broader mission after your background. But I think a bit of that would be a useful context to then move to the next phase.
Cities are crucial and important. They are not the only heart, but they are one of the heart systems when it comes to our economy, when it comes to our societies. I am in awe of the people who architect and build cities. Whether I look at the subway system in Paris or whether I look at the towers in Manhattan, it’s just amazing. And you can see that somebody really thought about urban planning. One of the things about cities though is that you can’t really go to San Francisco and go to the mayor or go to the governor and say, “Oh, we’re going to rebuild the entire transportation system of San Francisco.” It doesn’t work that way. And so you can see that we’re headed towards a saturation problem because more people are coming up the economic ladder. A lot happens in cities, yet the infrastructure is what it is.
And so we look at it in terms of San Francisco, again, I live not far from it. It talks a lot about having a housing problem. It talks a lot about having a problem with businesses leaving because it’s just expensive to do business there. But at the same time, 30% of the real estate footprint of that city is dedicated to parking. There are tall buildings that don’t have housing, don’t have driving businesses. They literally have parking. And you and I both know just from a statistics standpoint, people come in the morning, park the car, then leave it there, depreciating and taking up space to go to work and then get back in it.
And so we think that from a timing standpoint, if you think about transportation, not as the pleasure of driving, but just moving people as efficiently as possible from point A to point B, if you think about the speeds are lower in general, and the more people you have in cities, that doesn’t mean you don’t have connectors. But in general, within an operational design domain (ODD), the speeds are lower. From a safety standpoint, I’m not saying it’s easy, but it is easier and more controllable. And then the environment, hopefully we’ll stop. We’re done arguing whether we have a problem or not with the environment. That’s a huge deal, too.
And then last but not least, something that’s really dear to me is economic access. I mean having the choice of picking up somebody in an algorithm and done properly as opposed to whether – I know I’m going to date myself, but there was a lot of discussion decades ago about hailing a cab in Manhattan and depending on who you are, what color you are, what gender you are, what you’re wearing, what you’re not wearing, the service was not the same. And if you don’t have access to where the economic activity is, not only don’t you participate in it, but you don’t even get to dream about what’s possible and then get to strive for it.
And so when we look at all that, that’s how we think about the urban environment. That’s why we think they’re important. And I don’t want to be facetious – it’s also good business. I already know that because there are people moving people in those environments right now, except we think we can do it more effectively.
"Cities are crucial and important. They are not the only heart, but they are one of the heart systems when it comes to our economy, when it comes to our societies...And I don't want to be facetious – it's also good business."
So let’s just switch. Now we have the Zoox as a frame. We’ll come back to some of the particularly interesting areas to go in depth on. But now, let’s move to you a bit.
You are an engineer by training, which we could already tell from some of the framings and things, but you also got into management fairly early in your career. By all accounts and by my own judgment, your ascent through tech leadership ranks was swift and effective. Did you set out to have this kind of career?
No. I wish, I know. I owe a lot to my parents, first of all. My dad was an engineer in telecommunication and then also in management. I never understood the power of latent expectation. Meaning, it wasn’t a, “If you do this, you will be wonderful.” [It was] “This is expected of you. This is what normal looks like.” So there was that.
Second, I owe a lot of thanks to the French educational system that forces you to study both STEM, but also literature philosophy. You quickly noticed that some of the greatest philosophers were some of the greatest mathematicians, too. And so really developing a passion for both. I owe a lot to just the life I ended up living, having to move around a lot in different ecosystems, whether it’s Senegal, whether it’s France, whether it’s Israel, whether it’s Texas, East Coast of the United States, West Coast of the United States, learning to just be adaptable.
And it was on me to look at the ecosystem I was coming into and learn it, observe and adapt to basically be comfortable in it. It would’ve been very crazy for me to expect the ecosystem to adapt to me. And what that brought was a blend of engineering people. And once you start talking about people, the human engineering side of things, what is the best way to get people to believe in discretionary energy, especially since I like risky, transformative projects? You don’t want your nine-to-fiver who’s clocking in and out and just gives you direct energy. You want the people who will give you discretionary energy and who are so in love with the mission that they will figure out ways to make it happen. And so that’s sort of me in a nutshell.
I would be remiss to not mention my husband and two kids. Being a mother changed me. As my daughter says, “You are not the queen of the anthill in this house.” There are other humans. They have opinions and views. They are growing at their own rate. And we will all adapt to each other. And so that really gave me perspective. And then, my husband just gives me safety and security in meeting the imposter syndrome in me, in having the cry that I need to have at times in saying, “Dude, I’m scared. I don’t know if it’s going to work out this time,” and just having that rock that I can go to.
Yep. I think that sounds like an excellent partnership. And I think that all of us, myself included, if you don’t have a little imposter syndrome, you’re actually not being sensitive enough to the nature of these very ambitious opportunities that we all can lead and drive to. And I think it’s actually, in fact, a good check on being a very human leader. And having now done a number of different pieces of work with you on the Joby board, I can testify to your amazing leadership and humanness together. So that all makes sense to me.
So, let’s briefly touch on Intel. So you joined Intel, I think, in 2006, and throughout the years, held a number of roles including engineering manager in Israel through various years to corporate strategy officer at the end of your tenure. What were some of the core lessons you learned from managing so many different teams of different sizes, different functions?
First of all, that it’s not about you, it’s about them because I had different teams that had many different needs, and it was upon me to serve them. And again, to at least start with the adaptation process and then expect osmosis. Second, that company taught me the sense of responsibility that tech has.
In terms of wireless, I know we take a lot of things for granted right now, but I can tell you that in the early 2000s, when we were all dreaming of this world of today with voice and data, we weren’t sure we were going to make it. And understanding what that was going to make possible, what semiconductors do for the world and being at the basis of everything. And so really understanding the business context, understanding the teams, understanding what our mission is and how do I meet them where they’re at. And if it’s not working out, at least the first three tries, it’s not their problem. It’s my problem. I haven’t figured out a way to unleash. I haven’t figured out a way for all of us to solve. I haven’t figured out a way to enable them.
And part of the thing that I recall is that there’s a lot of, again, very smart combining of technology with humanism – engineering and humanism. I think I recall you telling me once that you actually engaged in learning some Hebrew to work with a remote Israeli team. What were some of the ways that you bring both engineering and humanism together in your management style?
You did. Yeah, perfectly. You have a good memory, which I know. So I was tapped to go lead the Wi-Fi engineering team. It was very clear that the majority of it was in Israel. So you can’t really do that via remote control. So learn the team. I was also pregnant at the time, so I had to wait for my second child to be born before moving to Israel. And then, when I moved to Israel, it was very clear that I was one of the few American Intel execs. I could see the willingness to partner, but I could also see the barriers.
And in Israel, they have something called Aliyah, where Jewish people come back to live there. And because of that, they have a very nice system, Ulpan, for learning Hebrew. And so every day during lunchtime in IDC-10, room 214, my Hebrew teacher would come, and she would teach me Hebrew. I still have some words up until now. And it served two purposes. First of all, it was like, “I’m here to stay. This is not a fad I’m one of.” But it also served the purpose of, “I am trying to be one of you, so we can be together and accomplish what we need to accomplish and move on.”
Another example is I had a leadership team. At some point – I won’t say the year because that would not be fair to them – that just could not get out of their own way. [It was always like] “It’s his fault, her fault.” They were driving me absolutely nuts. And I think they wanted me to be judge and jury. And we were not making progress.
And so I found out that one of them was a skipper and was doing races and was really good. I had read some stuff in literature from, I think the company was Oracle, and I kind of blended in and I said, “Okay, you all are going on a sailing trip.” And so I sent the entire leadership team on a sailing trip. And obviously, a couple said, “Well, I don’t want to do this.” I said, “Well, you’re already deselecting. That’s okay. That’s totally okay.” And then obviously had all of the normal legal HR approvals. And then they all went sailing. And before they went, I said, “Are you all organized? I know who the skipper is, but you need to cook. You need to eat. You need to do a bunch of things. Do you all have a plan?” “No.” I said, “Well, maybe you should start with a plan because you’re definitely going.” And let’s just say that the team went sailing for one week, almost 10 days, and when they came back, we didn’t have any more issues.
Yep. Sounds like a much stronger version of team building than the classic trust falls and other things. So it was like, “No, no, we’re solving these problems together.” Yep. Well, it’s a good sailing story.
So then, you decided to branch out from Intel onto something new, and that meant leaving obviously one of the largest, most iconic tech companies in the world. Did you have start-ups in mind? What was your thinking at this point in your career?
So I’m going to try to say this as elegantly as possible. Unfortunately, and fortunately, to be fair, when you look like me and you’re in tech, you get solicited a lot. This is not an arrogant statement, I promise. It’s just a mathematical distribution problem at this point. And so that was happening a lot. I also like to learn from others.
So in 2016, I ended up almost leaving Intel because I wanted to do something different and because I got seduced into doing something different. And I didn’t end up leaving. This was also the year that unfortunately Andy Grove, whom I owe a lot to, passed. So I ended up staying at Intel.
But out of that came a one-on-one with myself, where I said, “Okay, this is also stressful to respond, meet people and all that, so I need to make a list of, would I ever leave Intel? And if I do, what would have to be true?” And so I came to the conclusion that yes, I would leave Intel at some point. I didn’t know when or where I wasn’t unhappy, but I was like, I just don’t see myself finishing my career here. And then, I wrote a few things. My kids were young and I wanted to be in their lives. So I said, “It can’t be a publicly-traded company because obviously I wanted a senior role and you have responsibilities. You have to talk to investors, do a bunch of things. Press, I mean, I learned all that at Intel. So I kind of had an inkling.
So from that standpoint, it was a small, private, maybe startup, but not a two, three people startup. That’s not who I am. That’s okay. That’s just not my best self. And then, I needed it to be in the valley, around the valley because I had already moved my family a lot. It’s easier to move two or three-year-olds than it is to move 14 or 15-year-olds. That just doesn’t work. If it was going to be a startup, it needed to be a founder or founders that wanted somebody like me because they could clearly see what I would bring to the table as opposed to [somebody early in their career].
For example, when I was talking to Jesse Levinson, my co-founder today, I said, “Hey, are you doing this because you want to or are you doing this because the board is telling you you need a babysitter, basically?” He’s like, “Are you nuts? No, I’m doing this because I need to complement myself.” I said, “Okay, that’ll work.”
Then I needed to just feel good butterflies, just be excited, kind of fall in “work love.” So I made the list and I told all the recruiters, “If you have that, you can call me.” And thinking they were never going to call me. Because at the top of all that, it needed to be worthy. I felt like I had earned working on something worthy. I mean, money wise, yeah, I could make more money, I suppose, but at the end of the day, life is good in the grand scheme of things. Unless I want to buy a jet or sailboat or whatever those things, I’m good. I’m going to be okay.
And so yeah, then a call came about Zoox. And to be fair, my first reaction was, “I know it ticks the boxes, but it sounds complicated, and borderline messy. So I don’t know about that.” But then a few people that I trust said I should meet board members and Jesse, and I ended up doing so and then visiting the premises and, yeah, I got the bug, I fell in work-love with it. And I’ve been in work-love with it for three and a half years.
Yeah, I love that expression “work-love.” I may end up appropriating it and using it in some context. Say a little bit about the specifics, because AV is enormously complicated. What are the things that were particularly enchanting around Zoox?
The mission. The fact that from a legacy standpoint, at this point, I work for meaning and purpose. I think transportation hasn’t been disrupted. I mean, it started, but you are at the beginning of a wave as opposed to during a wave or at the top of a wave. I had a feeling from just all of the claims. And again, I want to be very clear, founders have to be crazy. Otherwise, there is no innovation. Sometimes, Jesse’s like, “Well, but this, that” I’m like, “Dude, if you knew all that, you wouldn’t have started.” So it’s A-okay and we’re grateful, but I could also tell that it’s a lot of, like you said, at the end of the day, it’s a data center on wheels. That’s really what it is. And so some of what I had learned along the way was going to be practical.
And then the hardware/software integration is something that I really love. I’ve loved it ever since I was a little girl, and this is just a playground when it comes to that. Last but not least – and this is kudos to the board – outside of the technology, the board members I talked to were extremely candid. And that told me that I could do business with these people and with the company because you just know. And so I knew I was going to have fun. It was going to be hard, it was going to take a long time, but I was going to have fun and I would be surrounded by good people. And that’s what essentially drew me to Zoox in particular.
"I don't think transportation hasn't been disrupted. It's started, but you are still at the beginning of a wave, as opposed to during a wave or at the top of a wave."
No, amazing. And so what was the first few months like? I have always found that when you kind of join one of these things, you join with work-love, with enchantment, but then, you’re also like, “Whoa, I thought it was complicated. And it’s a lot more complicated than I thought.” So what were the first few months? And then bringing in the operational excellence that you get from Intel and adding that to the mix, what was that like?
First, I had to set expectations, because it used to be two co-founders, and now it was one. And there was a little bit of [perception of] I mean, what is this almost 50-year-old from an established but kind of older company like, “Oh, what’s happening here?”
So I declared in the first All Hands meeting, I was asked, “What’s your 90 day or whatever plan?” And I said, “Let me make it easy for you. I have my one-year plan ready.” And they’re all like, “What?” And I said, “Look, I don’t know that I’m going to make any major decisions or any change or anything like that. My first goal is that 12 months from now, you all forget that I wasn’t here at the beginning. I want to be one of you.” So lots of talking to people, lots of meetings, lots of asking questions.
There are a lot of super smart people here, and them being okay with me saying, “Hang on, I’m not sure I understand that. Can you back up the boat and help me understand?” When something didn’t make sense to me, don’t say, “Hey, this doesn’t make sense.” Say, “Hey, that’s interesting,” except now they’ve caught onto me. They know that when I say interesting or fascinating, what I really mean is, “This is stupid. Why are we doing it?” So I have to adapt it a little bit, but lots of, “Hey, help me understand,” basically.
So that’s what I did. I didn’t talk about operational excellence because I’m very conscious of [the fact that] you can’t tell people [about that]. And that’s probably a mistake sometimes I made at Intel. And it’s important to understand your mistakes and make new ones. You can’t tell somebody their baby’s ugly. I don’t care how logical or rational it is. Nobody wants to hear their baby’s ugly. So in places where it was important really to get started, I mean, capital, for example. And you helped me a lot, I think you’ll never know that. We met at Village Global. You gave me a 15 minute one-on-one. And I was like, “Oh, he just told me I was in a capital battle.” That’s literally without saying it. You were like, “Okay, technology, technology, we talked about that.”
But the way you asked me about capital was, “Lady, you’re in a capital battle too.” And that really shifted my mindset because I’m like, “I’m not in a baby startup.” I mean, these are big startups spending a lot of capital. You gave me a hint. I think you asked me, “What is the capital investment before the first dollar of revenue?” And you said, “Don’t answer that right now.” And that shifted my mindset. So I would say the first year was listening, being part of the team, and saying, “What are the foundational threats? How do we deal with them?” And then, by ourselves, begin to execute.
Yep. And part of, I think, what was already fairly obvious to anyone who is encountering you for the first time in this conversation, is you are one of the people I think of as an infinite learner and like, “Okay, what does this play look like? What does strategy look like? What do tactics look like? What do I learn from other people? How do I integrate it,” et cetera. And that conversation also kicked off by, “Oh, I want to make sure that Aicha and I are working together as many times as we can.” So yes, it was awesome.
Let’s talk a little bit about Zoox workflow and communication. Obviously, one of these things is complicated projects with lots of different things. What you always do as an investor, you try to do as simple as possible, but sometimes to get too simple on the outcome is very, a lot of work with moving pieces. So how do you organize this so that these teams stay in sync? And what are some of the, how has this led to some of the great milestones with Zoox?
Very transparent culture. Some would argue too transparent, by the way. But there’s one plan. Everybody knows it. If you work at Zoox, I’m not giving you any opportunity for it to be a secret. Very much focusing on decisions and who needs to know. Because at the end of the day, I tell people here, it’s funny, we hire a lot of people who got the best throughout their lives and they come over here and I’m like, “Okay, ball game change.” This is not about you getting an A. This is about you making sure nobody gets an F, because you can do your best work possible if the other team does not get a passing grade. We don’t have a product. It’s a vertically integrated product. And so we’re very honest about that upfront. We build it into our culture.
I just had a discussion with some folks who are helping us with some safety stuff. And they said to me, “Well, for a company where safety is foundational, it’s kind of odd that you have a lot of groups doing safety.” And I’m like, “Yeah, by design.” I cannot be in a situation where there’s a group over there that everybody’s looking at and saying, “It’s your job to do safety.” No, even the software guy who’s coding, I want him to think overrun, underrun. Like, “What do I do if something goes wrong?” It has to be permeated in the culture.
Last but not least, also being very transparent about this is not a get-rich-quick scheme. This is the beginning of this [type of] transportation. Sometimes, I talk about the people who built the cathedrals in Europe. They were building them in very difficult conditions, and some took 400 years to be finished. So the people who started it never came remotely close to where it was going to be done and enjoyed it.
So really transparent, really open, and really a big, big focus on collective learning, on decisions. And when we have a tough decision, not only do we give the why, but we also give trade-offs and alternatives considered. Sometimes, people need to hear that they were heard basically. And then synchronizing. So sometimes some teams get mad because they can move faster. And I’m like, “Yeah, but that’s too fast for the rest of the company. So that’s going to create problems.” And you hope that people agree with that, that they accept it. And if they don’t, that’s okay, because it has to be a match for everybody else.
"We have a very transparent culture. Some would argue too transparent, by the way. But there's one plan. Everybody knows it. If you work at Zoox, I'm not giving you any opportunity for it to be a secret."
I think all of those rules are important for these kinds of scale journeys.
So one of the other things that I think that Zoox has as kind of part of its mission is obviously it’s going to create an important set of technologies, fleets, engagement, a set of things around these kinds of areas of function, but it’s also making targets an impact even beyond this scale impact, right? What are some of the ways in which it kind of says more than what it is, kind of just its own evocation of its business and its own kind of sell a bunch of vehicles and establish a bunch of ways that people are moved around? What is that even kind of mega scale impact that you’re targeting and how are you going about it?
We tell each other all the time, “We have to earn it.” That’s why we don’t talk about it a lot externally, because we want to be responsible and reasonable. But yeah, it’s like, first of all, if you can move people, you can move anything. And of course, people already know about moving food and moving goods, but I dream of the day of moving services and bringing services to people because they are at a point where they need the physical version of the service, and it needs to come to them for whatever reason. I dream of those days. I dream of the day when I don’t have this battle with the rest of the ecosystem. I think that individually-driven cars will be here for a long time, but can we go from, let’s say, two and a half, two point one, two and a half cars per American family to maybe one, because everything that needs to be transported is being transported. And by the way, whether it’s by me or our competitors/fellow travelers, this is a big market. When you’re talking about transportation, there will be many of us.
Last but not least, really, in terms of education, I like LEGO robotics a lot, bringing people all sorts of services. I think that the kids who study or who are involved in LEGO robotics make better engineers, better professionals, better everything. They’re already learning teamwork. They’re already learning how to have a boss. Outside of being in a team sport, that’s basically the best training for real life and for catching the bug and for wanting more in life. But I know a lot of kids don’t participate in LEGO robotics because they don’t have a way to get to where you need to get to. So taking humans also to services, all of those things are part of our dreams, but again, we have to earn it.
Yep. I think that’s good advice for all of us. So is there some depth in terms of the user profiles and the factors in the design and product that’s also worth covering here?
We think about the rider all the time. All the time. We think about the experience of the rider, starting with, how does the rider know we exist? How do they get access to the service? How do we make it so that the first time is a wow experience for a few minutes, but then becomes a, “Oh, I can’t imagine moving around in a different way”? How do we establish trust with that rider so that they know not just from the safety of the transport, but at the end of the day,
“Look, we’re running on computers. We know where people are. We know a lot of things about people,” basically, but how do we make sure that they know that, we know that, and they can trust us with that?
There’s an interior camera inside the cabin, and there’s a lot of discussion about that interior camera. And there’s a safety element. There’s a, “Hey, we need to take this vehicle and go clean it. So we think about the rider constantly. There’s actually this celestial lighting inside the vehicle at night that gives the rider that special feeling basically. And so the rider is everything. We think about that.
What we will do with the rider going forward, I don’t know. A lot of people already are telling us about advertising. Right now, we’re really anchored in purity. We’re going to transport you from point A to point B. We’re going to do it in a way that feels great and that you feel you’re participating in the future. And when you get off, you cannot wait for your next ride. I can’t tell you what the future holds, but that’s where we are mentally right now.
Well, this leads very naturally to another question, which is, at this point, only a few people have been lucky enough to have been inside a Zoox. What did you think the first time you wrote in one, and what did you think the last time you did?
Wow, great question. I have a warm feeling. The first time I rode in one, I giggled. It was just marvelous. I have the video, so I’ll show it to you next time I see you. It was just like, “Oh my gosh, this is happening. It’s moving.” So that’s that.
The last time I rode in one, I was very critical. Every little nook and cranny, I was like, “Oh, the seats could be better in this aspect. Or, “Hey, we have to be careful. We’ve been public that our first launch city, Las Vegas, gets hot there. Are we making sure in terms of all of our testing and everything? Because one thing I know is riders don’t like to be hot.” So I came back with a list of things that I told the team. One of the promises I made myself is to make new mistakes. Next time I ride in one, I’m going to write down in my little notepad, but I’m only going to give three things because I think they were like, “Man, we can’t let her ride anymore.”
No, no. I think that’s not the way it works, but yes. So, where do you think the rest of the public is and their position on autonomous vehicles, especially Zoox, the completely unmanned ones? When and how do you expect that hesitation to drop away?
Look, I think the public is rightfully so. They’re curious, but they’re also hesitant. You said it well, and I think that’s very fair. This is why we talk a lot about earning things at Zoox. I think that the public expect us to have collective responsibility as an industry and not do anything bad or stupid. I think that we’re all promising a lot to these customers. We’re going to have to deliver that value and deliver it safely, consistently, and over time. When we do that, the public will come to us.
To me, I tell the team I dream of the day when a city calls us and says, “Why the hell aren’t you in our city?” But we have to earn it through consistency and through basically being very, very deliberate about how we do things. I know I’m going to go a little bit over the edge here, but when something bad happens, we have to demonstrate that we were responsible. We have to open up our books, open up the math, open up the logs, so that the public does not put us at a bar that is basically impossible. We all know in math, there is a limit towards a number. This is a limit towards zero, but it’s not going to be zero. And how we behave when things happen, both within the company to whom it happens, as well as in industry, is going to be key.
One of the other things I know that you and the team have thought deeply about is to say, “Okay, we’re transforming this area. We’re only a big area of the workforce.” The work and jobs and transition of society is really important. So share a little bit of your thinking on that as well.
So we talk about it a lot internally and we’ve studied. I’m a learner. I like to study. And so we looked at a lot of industries that went through a transformation that was rooted in automation. At the end of the day, it’s just smarter automation what we’re doing. And we learned where it created more jobs versus where it did not and what were the differences.
And so right now, we’re going to be a little bit more open with the public, externally, about the fact that we actually see a lot of job creation. With this will come an ecosystem. I don’t know how many. A couple decades from now, it’s not going to be, everybody has their own charging system the same way as the way you get gas in the United States, whether it’s Chevron or Arco or it’s the same way.
And so I think there will be a standardization that will create a new ecosystem around charging, cleaning, servicing, around also bridging areas that one company covers and another one doesn’t. This teleops center I talked about is going to be a new job category. We, at least at Zoox, do not think that the day where general purpose AI allows you to drive anywhere, anytime in an area you’ve never seen before. We don’t think we’re there anytime soon. So there will be some level of remote assistance. That’s a new job category. Also, when you’re testing in new cities, you will learn new things. So what we’re doing a lot is going through an inventory of the jobs that will be created versus the jobs that maybe will be now in shorter demand.
And what does bridging look like? How do you write down the skills that are needed so that you are part of the solution of the bridging? We, for example, work with community colleges around the area for some of our safety drivers, some of our sort of vehicle technicians to talk about some of the skills that we are looking for relative to where they are today, and to find ways to incorporate that in the curriculum so that the future graduates have those and are already qualified for these new roles.
So as you can tell, this is something we think about a lot and I don’t think we should shy away from it. I think we should talk about it because one of the issues we’ve maybe… The difficult period we’re going through these days is that leadership and change occurs through conversations. So let’s have a conversation about it as opposed to each side being in their corners and saying, “Well, of course, we’re not going to displace any jobs. You’re crazy. Oh, no, no, no. You’re going to take all the jobs away.” The truth is in the middle. It’s how we manage the transition.
Yeah, that transition is for sure going to be critically important. So unfortunately, we’ve reached the end of our time together. Aicha, thanks so much for talking with us today. We appreciate how generous you’ve been with your insights and perspectives.
Thank you so much for having me. It was intellectual pleasure and a privilege. I appreciate it. You’re a very generous person.
Well, it’s our honor.