Inside the design of Zoox, Amazon’s quirky, self-driving car

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Inside the design of Zoox, Amazon's quirky, self-driving car

I saw the future and it looked a lot like an old horse-drawn “carriage”.

This is not my analogy, but the way the eight-person design team behind Zoox often describes their self-driving cars. Founded in 2014 and acquired by Amazon for $1.2 billion in 2020, Zoox has been building a self-driving car from scratch for nearly a decade. Their goal is not to sell cars, but to build the ride-sharing service of the future to challenge Uber and Lyft.

[Image: Zoox]

Few manufacturers actually question the way cars are designed. Even though electric cars don’t need a front engine, and true self-driving cars don’t need front seats, the self-driving cars we have today are still modeled after traditional cars. Waymo retrofitted a Chrysler Pacifica minivan with lasers, computers and various screens and sensors, while Tesla used cameras to squeeze more discreet self-driving technology into its vehicles, but kept the car’s classic silhouette.

Zoox, on the other hand, doesn’t give itself such constraints, which allows the company to build a one-of-a-kind car like nothing on the road — akin to a human-sized toaster. Smaller than the BMW i3, the Zoox car is completely symmetrical front and rear, allowing passengers to drive forward or backward without even having to turn around. (Symmetry also means the vehicle is made of fewer unique parts.) The large automatic doors slide open on each side of the vehicle, making it as easy to enter as a sun room, while the two benches inside face each other, just Like in a station wagon. Yet despite all these unconventional decisions, Zoox believes the full vehicle will still receive a five-star crash rating before it rolls out on public roads.

“That’s the benefit of designing from the ground up,” says Chris Stoffel, director of engineering at Zoox Studio and head of the industrial design team, as he walks us through some of the details of the design.

[Image: Zoox]

Wagon designed like a giant gadget

In many ways, Zoox’s form is self-explanatory. It’s a carriage – a room on wheels – so it’s shaped like that, while the design cleverly directs air through its own wheel wells to maintain aerodynamics.

According to Nahuel Battaglia, senior industrial design director at Zoox, “Instead of taking inspiration from the silhouette of a car, we were looking for more of a product aesthetic, something that’s already established in consumer electronics.” Soft, but the whole design looks like a gadget, like you can shrink it down to the size of your palm and play with it.

[Image: Zoox]

This is accentuated only by the four sensor pods (like antennas) protruding from each corner. This decision may seem lazy – why not integrate lidar depth cameras and other sensors into the form of the vehicle? But the team framed their approach as a classic instance of form following function. Engineers need to maximize the field of view of each sensor and ensure that the vehicle itself does not block their field of view, so they called for a camera on all four corners of the vehicle. Each pod has a 270-degree field of view, which means their fields of view overlap for safer redundancy.

[Image: Zoox]

Another benefit of this apparent pod design is that they are modular and come with their own cleaning fluid to maintain a clear view. These pods don’t need to be integrated into the body and can be easily pulled out for service, or upgraded as technology advances. Zoox estimates its vehicle will run 400,000 miles, so it must be serviceable.

[Image: Zoox]

What’s less obvious about the exterior design, however, is how it communicates with pedestrians. The way we’ve learned to communicate with a normal car doesn’t work for autonomous driving because there’s no driver in it. The Zoox’s unique body grabs attention, but the car itself is designed to elicit trust and advertise its safety.

“It’s really about developing a language around self-driving cars,” Stoffel said. “We’re used to, consciously or unconsciously, the way we interact with drivers and other objects, waving, nodding, flashing lights.”

The vehicle has an array of 32 speakers that can actually send sound to individuals within a 7-degree arc. “It’s about smart communication, and in another sense, it’s about reducing noise pollution in cities,” Stoffel said. Vehicles can not only simply honk their horn to be heard across the block, but also chirp to people crossing the road while looking at their phones. A quieter ride is good for everyone — including Zoox riders who might want to sleep.

[Image: Zoox]

Predictable yet customizable interior

The in-car experience is also intentional. It does start with the aforementioned bench, which has two pairs of riders facing each other rather than in a row. In theory, the idea makes sense – we’ve seen it used on trains for decades.

“I find it’s a careful balance. In those scenes where you’re facing someone and they’re too close, it’s almost too intimate,” Stoffel said. “[But] The architecture does allow us to push those seats farther than one would expect. It’s more like sitting at a lounge or table than a cramped cubicle. “

[Image: Zoox]

The seats themselves have integrated screens for everyone to choose music and adjust the air conditioning, and they are covered in waste-free 3D knitted textiles. But you won’t see any seat adjustments or moving parts like articulating cup holders. This way, Zoox provides a consistent feel every time you enter.

“The 6 a.m. experience is the same as a 6 p.m. experience,” Stoffel said. “We always call it a return state. If someone gets in and out of the vehicle, it should always be the same.”

[Image: Zoox]

One problem with bench design, however, is its potential impact on passenger safety. Static benches are generally more body-hugging than well-fitting chairs. “That means designing something that looks like a sofa . . . and five-star safety!” Stoffel said. One breakthrough that made the design possible was a custom horseshoe-shaped airbag that would deploy in an accident, wrapping each bench like a fragile item wrapped in bubble wrap.

While the Zoox team believes they’ve figured out how to make this neutral, return-to-state safe, they’ve expressed and customised the interior through their spectacular “Celestial Headliner” with 600 individual LEDs on the ceiling, like Shine like a star in any color.

[Image: Zoox]

“Open at night, they’re a pretty magical experience. We could use them for ambient lighting—they have a calming effect on the rider—and we might use them for subtle notifications like which doors are opening,” Battaglia Say. He also imagines that when friends go out for the night, they might book a full Zoox instead of sharing it. In these cases, the LEDs might even go into some controllable party mode at night. Anyone willing to spend a little more to rent a car for themselves can customize the ambience of riding in Zoox.

“In the morning, you might want a peaceful commute. During the day, running errands is a different mood, and at night when you want to go out, it’s a different mood — it can all be done,” Stoffel says. “It’s your ride, that’s the beauty of it. You don’t have to worry about owning the car, but you can enjoy the bad thing and make it your own. . . make it happen.”

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