It’s been a turbulent year for Aicha Evans, the CEO of Zoox. In the summer of 2020, Amazon took over the Californian manufacturer of self-driving vehicles for $ 1.2 billion. In December Zoox then presented its first vehicle – and heralded a departure from the car as we know it.
The vehicle, intended as a self-driving taxi, looks more like a high-tech carriage than a normal car. Sliding glass doors invite passengers on both sides to board. And in every corner there is a “sensor capsule” with several lidar and radar modules as well as cameras that support the vehicle in navigation. An electric motor is hidden under the floor and can get passengers to their destination at speeds of up to 120 kilometers per hour.
The Zoox vehicle is one of the few driverless cars that have been built from scratch – not based on existing bodies. Nor are they intended for private ownership, according to Evans. Instead, Zoox plans to introduce an app-based driving service in cities like San Francisco and Las Vegas, where the vehicle will also be tested.
MIT Technology Review spoke to Evans about what it’s like to transform an industry and transform urban mobility.
TR: How do you define Zoox? Are you an AI company? A robotics company?
Evans: We are a transport company that uses and combines the advantages of AI, robotics – all the new technologies related to electric vehicles and software – to develop a new type of transport.
In a city like San Francisco, which is struggling with housing market problems and already fears that business people will migrate, 30 percent of the real estate portfolio has so far been used as parking spaces. So if people were to use Zoox to get from A to B, these areas could be used for companies, apartments and parks.
To make all of this possible, we at Zoox find it important to use sensors and computers. We are repeatedly asked why we are building a completely new vehicle. Well, because today’s passenger car was conceived and designed for the human driver. Our aim is to redesign the vehicle so that it can be driven as easily and safely as possible by an AI system.
How could autonomous vehicles influence our lives?
The world in 30 or 40 years will look very different. We believe that autonomous driving is the beginning of a new era. Just like it was with the Internet, the PC, wireless communication and the smartphone.
The smartphone is not that old, is it? Sometimes I wonder how we could even work without these devices. But we did it. Driving autonomy will enable us to do a lot, for example in the area of goods transport and services.
“I believe that a lot of what we personally go somewhere for today will be transported to us autonomously in the future.”
Many driverless cars are mainly used in western cities. How well will these systems work in other places?
Algorithms in themselves have no prejudice. However, data can be biased. Not because the data is bad, but because it is affected by where you collect it. Zoox will not be active in other countries until we have trained our systems with local data sets. If you don’t do that and work on the basis of false assumptions, it can become quite problematic.
As a company, we need science [hinter unseren Produkten] to understand. It is important to understand the problems that can arise from certain AI inputs. This is all the easier when we have people working together who are of different origins and therefore also think differently.
What is your leadership style like?
That has changed over the years. At first you are primarily an engineer and are noticed because – when it comes to projects – you are one of the best. You try to keep improving, to learn more and to exert more influence. But you quickly realize that it’s not about the individual, but about the whole. You can’t do much on your own.
For me, leadership does not mean “commanding and monitoring”. Rather, it’s about: How do you manage to convince people of a task and win them over? And how do you achieve the goal together?
How diversely do you build your team?
Ultimately, we build an end customer product – and end customers come in all variations, they come from all skin colors, all genders, all … whatever. It would be bad to develop a consumer product without having people with them who think like the consumers.
Important considerations are access and equality. For example, it is difficult for an African American woman with short hair to get her hair cut. There aren’t many people who can cut my hair – to use that as an example. I notice that every time I move to a new city: “Oh, I just have to find Martin Luther King Boulevard here. All the hairdressers on both sides of the street will be able to cut my hair there.” That was the case in Washington DC or Austin or Portland. So I’m looking forward to our vehicle picking people up where they come from – and taking them to where they have the best economic opportunities.
As a black woman, you hold a management position in the technology industry. This is not yet an everyday occurrence. How do you deal with that?
I don’t wake up every day thinking that I’m a black woman with power in tech. Occasionally I am reminded when someone gets stupid to me. But I don’t want to be angry all the time, it’s not very productive. What I do think, however, is that I am embodying an opportunity. I stand for something like this to be possible. For a long time I asked myself: What in our system prevents this from being so rare? And how can we change that?
I remember going to a Lego robotics competition in the Bay Area with my son for the first time. And he said to me: “Wow, nobody is like me here.” I said, “No, no, I’m sure you see that wrong.” Then I looked around – and indeed: he was right. Also, there were very few girls’ teams. It is very clear that some people have only limited options so far.
I’ll bring that to Zoox and say, “Hey guys, let’s sponsor Lego robotics. Do some of you want to be mentors?” I always look at what is feasible and how we can bring about positive change. These problems have not been resolved in the United States for centuries. This is evident in the way our nation was founded and built. As the saying goes: “A spoonful of honey catches more flies than a barrel full of vinegar.” A little more honey and a little less vinegar would be the right way to go.
Autonomous driving, the effects on the transport of people with robotic taxis, people movers, autonomous buses and the necessary techniques and regulations deal with us in a ten-part series.