Zoox Gets Even More Different With A Thermal Camera

Zoox Gets Even More Different With A Thermal Camera

From its beginning, Zoox has wanted to do things differently from other self-driving companies. Though a pure startup, they have sought to build their own custom vehicle, designed from the ground up for robotaxi use — symmetrical and bidirectional with 4 wheel steering, a large cabin with doors on each side and a massive sensor array. All other teams have worked to develop a self-driving stack on a traditional car, though some moved after that to work on custom vehicles like the Cruise Origin, and Waymo Firefly and Zeekr taxi.

In an interview Tuesday, Zoox CTO Jesse Levinson described how Zoox vehicles now have four 640×480 thermal (long-wave infrared) cameras on them at the corners. Thermal cameras offer night vision, and in general vision that does not depend on either ambient light from the sun or streetlamps, or emitted light from headlights or LIDAR. This gives them certain unique abilities, but one of their core values is they are very good at spotting warm things, like pedestrians, animals, automobile tailpipes and warm tires.

Levinson says the one useful value is they are not affected by steam, as can be seen coming out of manholes and tailpipes. These cameras can see a person behind a cloud of steam with no problems, when regular cameras and LIDAR may have trouble. Radar also sees fine though steam but has low resolution.

Other teams which have considered these cameras (I evaluated them for Google/Waymo back in 2011) have found their benefits not sufficient to merit some of their downsides — high price, low resolution, and inability to work through glass like windshields. With time, their cost have come down, and Levinson feels that because their robotaxi is not as cost constrained as a car meant for sales to the public, they should use every sensor that can give them an edge, even if the advantage only comes from time to time. While Tesla has stated that they feel that trying to fuse multiple sensors adds complexity and is a negative — Tesla has removed both radar and ultrasonic sensors to rely only on vision — Zoox believes that if you do your sensor fusion right, extra information can always be valuable.

Thermal cameras will give the best advantages in twlight and darkness. On a very warm (98 degree F) day, they may not even see human flesh very well. In the dark the difference is, well, night and day. Ironically for Zoox, they don’t intend their vehicles to travel much on rural highways, where thermal cameras are superb at spotting animals like deer. Animal collisions account for 2 million of the 12 million collisions in the USA every year, and most of them take place at twilight on rural roads. The Zoox vehicle, while capable of doing 75mph, will be used as an urban robotaxi.

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These cameras are being used by highway vehicles for this, and their ability to see an almost arbitrary distance even in the dark. That distance is limited mainly by the lower resolutions of the cameras, which requires a narrow field of view. Zoox is using a wide field of view so it won’t give them that long range night vision.

Zoox continues to be one of the quieter of the companies. They continue on the same mission from before their acquisition by Amazon, says Levinson. They have now made a factory in Fremont, CA able to make vehicles in the tens of thousands, and Amazon is providing the billions in funding to make that happen.

It remains to be seen if Zoox’s different approach will help it win in the marketplace. At present they have not measured or won’t disclose data on the hard numeric value to place on their special features, like a bidirectional symmetrical design, a pleasant passenger companion or a wide array of sensors facing in all directions. GM’s Cruise Origin vehicle offers many of the same features, though it is not bidirectional — though it looks almost that way and offers face to face seating. When Zoox begins to operate — which they say is soon though they wisely have not named a date — they hope customers will see the value and prefer their product. That may or may not be valuable — while there will be competition in places like San Francisco (home of Zoox, Waymo and Cruise) in the early years it is more likely that companies will avoid going head to head in cities rather than just claiming virgin locations.

Zoox has also, as yet, not presented anything about how they will price their service, though they feel the absence of a driver will allow them to eventually have much lower costs than services like Uber. The long-term path to success in this business requires being more than just a cheaper Uber, though, and Zoox’s goal for now is to be better rather than cheaper.

Levinson, when asked about the blocking factors keeping them from releasing now, pointed to the core challenges of solving all the corner cases, and firmly proving their safety case to show they have matched the safety of average human drivers. While they work hardest to prevent mistakes by their vehicle which would make it at fault in an accident, they also examine every incident to see if they could have made things better even when not at fault.

Zoox is fortunately to have a wealthy parent like Amazon. (Of course Waymo, Cruise and several others also have such a parent.) The market downturn has been harsh to many of the startup ventures that have to raise money in the markets. Even MobilEye, which is owned by Intel, yesterday disclosed their planned spin-off IPO will happen at just a $16B valuation — the same price Intel paid several years ago when they took it private. Companies that went public by SPACs have almost all seen serious haircuts in the market.

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