Highlights from the 2014 LA Auto Show

Visionary or vaporous? Zoox Level 4 autonomous, bi-directional electric vehicle

By

December 3, 2013

The Boz design is driven by four electric motors mounted at the wheels

The Boz design is driven by four electric motors mounted at the wheels

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The Boz is not a car, and you won't be able to buy it. According to new start-up Zoox, the Boz is the transportation paradigm that comes after the car. It's but a fanciful idea from an unknown start-up for now, but the company believes it can finish its thought by 2021.

No matter what Zoox's wildest dreams are, cars aren't going to start driving themselves overnight. Industry executives and researchers seem to agree that autonomous driving will come in several waves. At last month's Connected Car Expo, Continental North America NAFTA-region president Jeff Klei forecasted that we'll see semi-autonomous cars by 2016, highly autonomous cars by 2020 and fully autonomous cars by 2025.

Other companies and experts have their own ideas about the specific timeframe and on what type of vehicle will define each step. To help head off any confusion, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has fleshed out a general framework. In a policy statement issued in May, it defined a five-level scale beginning at no automation, full driver control (Level 0), moving up to single-focus automation (Level 1), up through multi-function system automation (Level 2), and onward to limited self-driving that still requires some alertness and intervention by the human driver (Level 3).

Level 4 is the highest level of the NHTSA's scale, and it serves as the basis for Zoox's Boz car design. The NHTSA's policy defines Level 4 as follows:

"Full Self-Driving Automation: The vehicle is designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip. Such a design anticipates that the driver will provide destination or navigation input, but is not expected to be available for control at any time during the trip. This includes both occupied and unoccupied vehicles."

Given all the established automakers and brands currently working to bring autonomous driving technology to market one step at a time, Zoox's approach of skipping right over those steps to make an erratic leap at the finish line – a windshield-less, smart chauffeur designed to change the face of transportation as we know it – is more than a little suspect. Then consider that Zoox is essentially a three-person design firm whose founder Tim Kentley-Klay has a long list of animation and commercial credentials but no listed car design experience. Combine that with the fact that Zoox's website lists "preferred partners we would love to talk with," as opposed to "actual industry partners we're working with," and top it off with a car that's called "Boz" because it's "for bosses," and well, you get the picture. It looks very interesting on paper, but we won't be surprised if we never hear the terms "Zoox" or "Boz" after 2013.

The Zoox uses a symmetrical design for bi-directional driving and lower development costs

Still, Zoox does have some notable ideas worth considering. As a design-driven creative team, Zoox approaches autonomous design not from the perspective of adding self-driving technologies to traditional cars, but from the perspective of using autonomy as the starting point of a new type of mobility.

If you think about it, it's a logical approach. Instead of building an autonomous car based on a car designed for human driving, Zoox redesigns the car based entirely around autonomous driving. Certain components that are car standards (windshields and headlights, for instance) become obsolete within a fully autonomous framework. Such cars "see" for themselves using onboard sensors, and perhaps car-to-car communications and infrastructure-derived data, so providing clear vision to occupants is no longer a necessity.

"The first element you may notice is what's absent: the front and rear windshield," Zoox explains on its website. "This is not to say L4s can't have them – certainly those designed for tourism would – but with this vehicle we make the statement that you now have an option."

"An option brings some pretty cool benefits. Firstly, we gain thermal, aerodynamic and acoustic efficiencies. The thermal load lost through the windshield is significant, requiring energy intensive climate control systems, as well as a number of ancillary systems to keep the glass clear. We remove this inefficiency."

By getting rid of windshields, which are really little more than a luxury in a self-driving car, the Boz design becomes lower, smoother and more fully governed by aerodynamics. The design also drops hardware such as the defogging system and windshield wipers.

Other aspects of the Boz design that sprint away from convention include the lack of a hood (it's powered by motors at each wheel, so it doesn't require a traditional engine bay), and its front-rear symmetry. The latter empowers "bi-directionality."

"A Zoox L4 will never need to do a 3-point-turn, or even a U-turn," Zoox explains. "And if it drives into a driveway or blocked off road, it can simply depart the opposite way. This efficiency is enabled by 360-degree machine vision and electric motors that can spin in either direction equally well."

A rear spoiler with LED brake lights distinguishes rear from front

To ensure safety and awareness for those inside and outside the car, Zoox imagines active spoilers with integrated LED lights lifting at the rear based on the direction the vehicle is moving. The spoiler will give the car a slightly more traditional front-rear look. A set of front LEDs lets other cars and pedestrians see the Boz from head on.

Inside the Boz, the user experience is more akin to sitting in a train car than a traditional automobile. Drivers become passengers, or as Zoox prefers, "commanders." They are freed from focusing on traffic and road signs, able to enjoy the commute by working on a laptop, watching video content, or even augmenting a poor night's sleep with a power nap.

Zoox's fully autonomous design eliminates much of the space-intensive interior hardware, such as the steering wheel, dashboard and pedals. With the help of a B-pillar-less body, this creates an airy interior designed for comfort and relaxation. The two rows of seats face each other, encouraging more natural interaction and conversation. Each seat appears to be equipped with a display that can presumably connect to the Internet, play video content, etc. The display can also help ease the drastic transition from driver's seat to passengers' lounge by displaying a picture of the road ahead, providing peace of mind to those that may be anxious about ceding vehicle control over to a machine.

Inside, two rows of occupants face each other, making interaction easier than in tradition...

The Boz design is based (on paper) around a carbon-composite build that starts with a skeletal frame planted atop a forged carbon-composite floor. The weight of the batteries is split into four quadrants around the floor. The frame is hollow, allowing for the wiring from the camera, radar, ultrasonic and laser sensors to be routed inside. A secondary frame connects the outer frame to the interior, and foam wedged between the frames provides insulation. Those underpinnings are topped with carbon-composite body panels.

The Zoox Boz has a carbon-composite structure

While its ideas are quite ambitious (or maybe just "out there"), Zoox doesn't imagine that every car on our highways, byways and backroads will become fully autonomous ... at least not any time soon. It sees a Boz-like autonomous car as a solution for city commuting, admitting that traditional cars will remain better-suited for longer journeys well into the future. It envisions the Boz filling the role of a zero-emissions, point-to-point transportation solution and says that it does not intend to offer cars for sale, but as an on-demand car service available at the poke of a smartphone app.

Should it ever develop a working vehicle out of its bold ideas and pretty renderings, Zoox plans to implement them in a gradual manner, starting by testing a single vehicle on a single city street, and slowly spreading to a fleet of vehicles commuting citywide. It plans to finalize an engineering team next year with hopes of getting its design to the street by 2021.

That eight-year timeframe seems quite ambitious, but Zoox has its own answer for that, too. It likens the four-motor design of the Boz to four motorcycles with identical hardware driving in unison, saying the car's quadratic symmetry means that it "need only specify 25 percent of the vehicle to define 100 percent." Design, testing and tooling become more efficient than designing the multitude of components for a traditional asymmetrical car.

It would be downright negligent to take what Zoox says at face value, but we do think that at least some of the concepts of the Boz design and car-sharing model will show up on the market eventually. We're just not convinced Zoox will be the one to bring them, and we're not convinced it'll happen by 2021. If nothing else, however, the start-up is jumpstarting a conversation about the revolutionizing effect autonomous technology will have on car design and commuting. Not a bad thing.

Source: Zoox

About the Author
C.C. Weiss Upon graduating college with a poli sci degree, Chris toiled in the political world for several years. Realizing he was better off making cynical comments from afar than actually getting involved in all that mess, he turned away from matters of government and news to cover the things that really matter: outdoor recreation, cool cars, technology, wild gadgets and all forms of other toys. He's happily following the wisdom of his father who told him that if you find something you love to do, it won't really be work.   All articles by C.C. Weiss
7 Comments

It reminds me of a TRON lightcycle that was combined with vehicles in the movie Minority Report. It looks really nice. I agree in that it will be years before cars will be driving themselves and replacing cars that don't.

I think that if they want to raise money to that end - self driving cars - they could make vehicles that people do drive themselves in variants of that design.

BigGoofyGuy
3rd December, 2013 @ 05:39 am PST

Headlight provide visibility to other drivers as well as illumination for the cars own driver.

Slowburn
3rd December, 2013 @ 11:41 am PST

So why is this city vehicle so low and flat, and built like an armoured tank?

if the cars around it are all aware then no collisions could/should occur right? As this car would always slow or stop & back away from a potential threat.

Good luck with that, having driven in NYC and vied with the cabs there to get around.

Bob Flint
3rd December, 2013 @ 05:16 pm PST

Missing the point entirely.

Why are cars family vehicles ? Because horses were used to pull buggies

Who needs a horse ? Get a gas engine.

Now we have level 4 vehicles. So who needs 4 seats ?

(Answer: a family - or group - of four)

So take four mobile seats. One person vehicles, you know, like bicycles, only with motors, and stability, and autonomous, and with an iron overcoat -a car is just an iron overcoat, right ?

Cars are soooooo 20th century, don't you know ?

Ideal for sending kids to school: parental override says "take Junior to school, do not pass "Go", do not collect $200, and don't drop him off at the mall on the way." vehicle enters school on full automatic, only Teacher can unlock the door, and let the varmints out. The human equivalent of registered mail, with assured delivery.

Also can be used to send drunks home. Or accident victims to hospital.

Or deliver stuff from Amazon. ("I ordered some semtex from you earlier: could you please re-route it to the White House? ....") There may be some problems here, but I think they are already here, whatever Level 4 vehicles are permitted. ("Is that car ticking, or is the fuse acid in a condom ?")

Ah, brave New World. So many little complications

Chris Goodwin
4th December, 2013 @ 07:50 am PST

Vaporware indeed. I can dream too. I dream of a car that flies, and animals that talk, and robots that will fetch me a beer.

Jeff Michelson
4th December, 2013 @ 09:52 am PST

Visionary vapour:

what might have happened if the Oracle at Delphi would had

glow-in-the-dark spray paint to huff instead of just plain old

sulphur dioxide....

I'm going to say that for many people "in the future",

leaving home and going anywhere may end up being avoided

as much as possible.

Tesla wrote that he expected the people of our time to become

MUCH more diligently selective in their sexual reproduction.

He thought people would become much more careful

as to the quality of their offspring-

namely,

their potential for intelligence&achievement.

Unfortunately,

he was QUITE wrong...

Griffin
4th December, 2013 @ 10:07 am PST

Finally a car for those who do not know which way they are going!

donwine
4th December, 2013 @ 12:00 pm PST
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