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An interview with Jesse Levinson, CTO, and founder of Zoox

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The interview was conducted on the Forbes Futures in Focus with Jesse Levinson, CTO, and Founder of Zoox. The interview has been edited as per the requirement.

How do you work with local and national infrastructure? What do cities need to do for your technology to work? Will this shift require a new road bill?

One thing we’ve always been consistent about is that we aren’t going to wait around for cities to change.

Working with cities and states and the federal government — it’s slow, right? And it’s hard because they have so many different stakeholders, and it takes a lot of time to do these kinds of projects.

We made the decision very early on that we aren’t going to rely on any infrastructure changes. We’re going to build a vehicle that works perfectly well with existing roads, and existing infrastructure.

And we’re going to do the work that we have to do to make that plug-and-play with cities as they are today. That doesn’t mean we wouldn’t love cities to evolve and get greener and we can start replacing parking lots.

There are all kinds of wonderful things for cities that this technology can improve over time, but we’re not waiting for that. We knew if we came around and said, “Hey, Cities, just do these 17 things that will cost you $10 billion,” we’d never get off the ground.

Looking beyond America, which geographies do you see that by 2030–2032 might have comfortably adopted this idea from you?

I would hope that, by 2032, most major urban areas across the world would have adopted this type of technology. Certainly, we do have global aspirations. We’d love to bring our technology to many, many countries on many continents.

That will take some time — we do have to get these vehicles built. We won’t be able to scale at the rate that, let’s say, Uber and Lyft did, which is fundamental with an app that the customer and the driver need to download, plus the backend infrastructure to make it all connect and run seamlessly.

That’s not easy at all. But fundamentally they were not limited in their rate of scaling in the way companies that have to make physical things are. Having said that, 2032 is a decade from now, so it gives us lots of time to have several iterations of the vehicle and manufacturing strategy.

My expectation is that Zoox won’t be the only company that’s building this type of technology, especially a decade from now. My expectation is that if you live in a major city almost anywhere in the world, a decade from now this will be a primary way of getting from point to point. And again, it doesn’t mean that nobody will ever own a car, but I strongly believe that a decade from now this is going to be a very significant form of transportation in all major cities, or almost all major cities, across the globe.

Some of the more obvious benefits of our technology are the safety aspects, and of course, we’re deeply excited to help save lives. There’s not much that’s more inspiring than that. But getting people access to safe, affordable, and clean transportation is powerful because there are so many segments of the population that just don’t have that today. In some cases, it’s due to accessibility, and in some cases, it’s due to financial considerations.

If you look at cab drivers, for example, they do discriminate based both on people’s appearances and on what parts of town they’re going to in order to pick people up.

If you’re in one of the parts of the town that is a little bit less privileged and you’re looking for a safe way to get around the city at two in the morning, it can be really scary for folks, genuinely — to the point that people maybe make bad decisions or don’t go places.

One of the great things about our technology is it doesn’t have any of those biases. There’s no person you have to interact with. You don’t have to wonder about who your driver’s going to be. And we’re going to be able to significantly lower the cost of transportation because today the largest portion of your Uber or Lyft bill is paying the driver.

Our driver is an artificial intelligence system, and we’re really excited about the societal implications. We’re also mindful of the fact that we’re not going to solve all things for all people right away.

This is a journey. Our first vehicle has some great accessibility features, but it doesn’t do everything for everyone. Similarly, while we expect our costs to be lower due to not needing human services, it’s going to take some time to be massively less expensive. But that will happen. We’re very excited about that.

Do you foresee alleviating the issues just discussed, potentially changing behavior and having an impact on area businesses?

Very much so. I think there are dozens of subtle and not-so-subtle changes we can look forward to in our cities over the coming decade and beyond. Sometimes it takes time to change an entire city.

But it is really going to be wonderful for people to see just how much clean and empty space there is to congregate and then bike and walk. It’s kind of remarkable when you think about how many cities are designed around people owning cars and driving them.

Cars were an amazing invention that helped connect people, and we’re grateful for that history, but they also have a lot of drawbacks and they’ve definitely not been strictly positive for cities or society. We think we can do better.

Again, we’re not confused; this is not a panacea. It doesn’t solve everything for everyone, and any new technology creates some new challenges as well. We want to be very mindful of that, and respectful of all of the dynamics there. But overall we’re just tremendously excited about the way cities will evolve over the coming decades as a result of this type of technology is available.

Where do you think the biggest problems are going to be?

I don’t know that there are going to be problems so much as just that it takes time to perfect and then scale the technology. For example, when you think about operating in a city, there will probably be certain intersections that are particularly poorly designed.

It might make sense, from a safety perspective, for robotaxis to avoid some percent of those intersections. The cool thing about that is that I don’t actually think it will fundamentally limit the quality of the service. Worst case: Maybe you get picked up or dropped off one block away from your ideal location. I do foresee there being some issues like that.

Similarly, we may see some impact from certain types of extreme weather. There could also be some scenarios when, in the early deployments — we might say for 1% or half a percent of the year — we might just not operate our fleet for those few hours. I think that’s a lot better than saying we’re going to wait to deploy this until the vehicles can handle 100% of everything.

We’re not going to deploy them anywhere that’s not extraordinarily safe. But I think the fact that we get to own and operate the fleet gives us a lot of control and agency over our path to market and allows us to bring this technology quite soon to people in a measured and safe way. That’s something we’re going to have to deal with as an industry. But anytime there’s a new technology, there are always some things you have to think about.

People also ask about the displacement of workers who are currently driving vehicles around. This is going to take a long time. We’re talking many years before the actual macro trends change meaningfully. So there’s lots of time to prepare. We’re creating a whole bunch of new types of jobs that didn’t even exist, for example, remote teleguidance of the vehicles. We’re very optimistic — but again, we do need to be mindful of all these different societal impacts of what we’re building.

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