I’ve seen the future, and it looks a lot like an old horse-drawn “carriage”.
It’s not my analogy, but how the eight-person design team behind Zoox so often describes their self-driving car. Founded in 2014 and acquired by Amazon in 2020 for $1.2 billion, Zoox has spent nearly the past decade building an autonomous vehicle from the ground up. Their goal is not to sell the car, but to build the ridesharing service of tomorrow to challenge Uber and Lyft.
Few manufacturers really question the design of cars. Despite the fact that electric cars don’t need front-end motors and true autonomous vehicles don’t require forward-facing seats, our autonomous vehicles today are still modeled after conventional cars. . Waymo is retrofitting Chrysler Pacifica minivans with lasers, computers and all sorts of displays and sensors for the job, while Tesla has incorporated more discreet self-driving technology into its vehicles using cameras, all maintaining the car’s classic silhouette.
Zoox, on the other hand, has given itself no such constraints, which has allowed the company to build a unique vehicle like none on the road, something akin to a human-sized toaster. The Zoox car is smaller than a BMW i3 and completely symmetrical from front to back, allowing it to move passengers forward or backward without even turning around. (The symmetry also means the vehicle is built from fewer unique parts.) Large automatic doors open from either side of the vehicle so it’s as easy to enter as a veranda, while two bench seats face each other inside, as in a wagon. And yet, despite all of these unconventional decisions, Zoox believes the entire vehicle will still receive a five-star crash rating before it hits public roads.
“That’s the benefit of designing from the ground up,” says Chris Stoffel, Studio Engineering Director and Industrial Design Team Leader at Zoox, who walked us through some of the finer points. of the design.
A wagon designed as a giant gadget
In many ways, Zoox’s form is self-explanatory. It’s a wagon – a piece on wheels – and as such it has that shape, while the design cleverly channels air through its own wheel arches to stay aerodynamic.
Instead of drawing inspiration from vehicle silhouettes, “we’re looking more for product aesthetics, something well-established in consumer electronics,” says Nahuel Battaglia, senior industrial design manager at Zoox. Indeed, despite its soft edges, the entire design reads like a gimmick, as if you could shrink it down to the size of your palm and play with it.
This is only underlined by the four sensor modules that stick out of each corner like antennae. The decision may seem lazy – why not integrate the Lidar depth camera and other sensors into the shape of the vehicle? But the team defines its approach as a classic example of form following function. Engineers had to maximize the view from each sensor and make sure the vehicle itself didn’t block their view. So they asked for a camera in each of the four corners of the vehicle. Each pod has 270 degree vision, meaning their field of view overlaps for safer redundancy.
The other benefit of this overt pod design is that they are modular, complete with their own cleaning fluids to keep a clear view. Without being integrated into the car body, the modules can easily be removed for repair or upgrade as technology advances. Zoox estimates that their vehicle will run 400,000 miles and as such should be serviceable.
However, what is less obvious about the exterior design is how it was built to communicate with pedestrians. The way we learned to communicate with normal cars is not enough for autonomous driving, because there is no driver inside. Zoox’s unique vehicle body catches someone’s eye, but the car itself is designed to inspire confidence and broadcast its safety.
“It’s really about developing a language around self-driving cars,” says Stoffel. “We are so used, consciously or not, to the way we interact with drivers and other objects, with the hand gesture, the nod, the flash of light.”
The vehicle is equipped with a set of 32 speakers, which can actually transmit sound to individual people in a 7 degree arc. “It was about smart communication and, in another sense, about reducing noise pollution in cities,” says Stoffel. Instead of just honking for the whole block to hear, the vehicle can chirp someone crossing the street looking at their phone. The quieter ride benefits everyone, including Zoox passengers who might be trying to sleep.
A predictable, yet customizable interior
The experience inside the vehicle is just as intentional. And it really starts with the aforementioned bench seats, which have two pairs of riders facing each other rather than sitting in rows. In theory, the idea makes sense – we’ve seen it used on trains for decades.
“I found it to be a careful balance. In those scenarios where you’re facing someone and they’re too close, it’s almost too intimate,” says Stoffel.[But] the architecture really allows us to push these seats further than people realize. It’s more like sitting in a living room or at a table than in a cramped compartment.
The seats themselves feature built-in screens allowing each person to choose music and adjust the air conditioning, and they’re upholstered in a no-waste 3D knitted textile. But what you won’t see are seat adjustments or moving parts like hinged cupholders. This is how Zoox delivers a consistent feel every time you walk in.
“The experience is the same at 6 a.m. as it is at 6 p.m.,” says Stoffel. “We always call this back to the state. If you have people getting in and out of the vehicle, it should always be the same.
Yet the only catch with a bench design is its potential impact on passenger safety. Static benches generally conform less to the body than fitted chairs. “That means designing what looks like a couch…and having five-star security!” says Stoffel.One breakthrough that made the design possible was a custom horseshoe-shaped airbag, which deploys in the event of a crash to wrap each bench like a fragile item in bubble wrap.
While the Zoox team believe they have figured out how to make this return to a neutral and safe state, they have worked on the expression and personalization of the interior through their spectacular “Celestial Headliner”, a ceiling with 600 individual LEDs that shine like stars in any color.
“Lit up at night, they are a truly magical experience. We can use them for ambient lighting – they have a calming effect on the rider – and we could potentially use them for subtle notifications, like doors opening,” says Battaglia. He also imagines that when friends go out at night, they can book a full Zoox rather than sharing it. In these cases, the LEDs can even enter a controllable party mode for the evening. Anyone willing to spend a little extra to rent the ride for themselves will be able to customize the vibe of riding in a Zoox.
“In the morning, you might want a serene ride. During the day, running errands is a different mood, and at night you want to go out, and that’s a different mood – it can do all of that,” says Stoffel. “It’s your turn, that’s the beauty of it. You don’t have to worry about owning the vehicle, but you can enjoy this badass thing and make it your own. . . we’ve enabled the vehicle to be able to do that in the future as it rolls out.