When the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a preliminary policy statement about vehicle automation in May, it specifically called out this safety requirement: “Ensure that the process for transitioning from self-driving mode to driver control is safe, simple, and timely.”
In other words, the self-driving car needs to know when its systems aren’t working, and then rapidly alert the driver to take back control in a matter of seconds. It’s this challenge—of bringing drivers back to task, say, after snooze—that most bothers Tim Kentley-Klay, founder and chief executive of Zoox, a mobility start-up.
“We think Level 3, which is what everybody in the auto industry is aiming for, is actually bullshit,” Kentley-Klay told me at last month’s Connected Car Expo in Los Angeles. He was referring to the designations assigned by NHTSA for the various degrees of autonomy:
- Level 0—fully manual like today’s cars
- Level 1—some assistive systems, like electronic stability control
- Level 2—more computer controls, like active cruise control
- Level 3—cars that drive themselves but still have a steering wheel and conventional pedals
- Level 4—full automation all the time, including unoccupied vehicles
“The legislation is saying that, even though the [Level 3] car is driving itself, the driver has to be paying attention,” said Kentley-Klay. “That’s not a self-driving car. That’s a self-defeating car. What is the point?”
Solution: Go All the Way
Kentley-Klay, whose company is based in Melbourne, Australia, sees a severe safety hazard in the machine-to-human handoff. “Even if the car successfully alerts you to take over, you’re likely to panic and crash your car,” he said. He cited a list of accidents in commercial aircraft, where automation is the norm, pointing out that pilots have difficulty taking charge when computers kick control back to humans. “If highly trained pilots have big issues with getting machine handoff,” he said, “think about the general consumer in the car.”
Kentley-Klay thinks we need to “reboot” everything about the vehicle, and redesign from scratch for full Level 4 autonomy. This basically means a robot, or driverless taxi, with no capacity at all for participants to drive. “Level 4 is the real-game changer,” he said.
In car designs by Zoox, passengers sit facing each other. The cars move in either direction, and there is no windshield. You don’t purchase the car. It’s owned by the manufacturer, which makes the vehicle and deploys it as a Lyft-like on-demand-via-app form of conveyance. The vehicle will move in a localized cluster in a private network. “This is curbside pickup and curbside drop-off,” he said.
Not a Car
Kently-Klay sees a seven-year roadmap to realization, with the next three years used to attract funding and the right engineering team in order to produce a prototype on a track. Then, he’ll need three more years to adapt it for real-world roadways, with one more year to implement one or more vehicles in a city, ideally with good weather, like Las Vegas, he said.
Kentley-Klay, whose background is in film post-production and animation, is ready to completely disrupt the global automobile industry.
“This is not a car,” he said. “This is what comes after a car, a new category of mobility for how we’re going to get around our big urban centers.” He said that, a century ago, not a single horse and carriage company survived the transition to the automobile. “We’re about to go through that same transition in the next 20 years.” In June, he presented the concept to the Google team in charge of self-driving car technology. “They liked it,” he said.
Kentley-Klay is taking a leap of faith with Zoox—and he expects passenger of vehicle to do the same. The vehicle has no front or rear windshield, only a narrow view to look out from the side. “If a Level 4 vehicle is driving itself at speed on a freeway, you don’t really want to see what’s in front of you, because it’s going to stress you out, unless you’re a thrill-seeker,” he said. “It’s better not to see it and focus on the enjoyment of being in the vehicle, or looking outside. It’s like flying business class.”
Images via Zoox