Moving People Forward
Zoox CEO Aicha Evans on the New Transportation Ecosystem
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.