Inside the design of Zoox, Amazon’s quirky, self-driving car – Fast Company
I’ve seen the future, and it looks a lot like an old, horse-drawn “wagon.”
That’s not my analogy, but the way the eight-person design team behind Zoox so often describes their self-driving car. First founded in 2014 and acquired by Amazon in 2020 for $1.2 billion, Zoox has spent nearly the last decade building an autonomous vehicle from scratch. Their goal is not to sell the car, but to build the rideshare service of tomorrow to challenge Uber and Lyft.
Few manufacturers truly question how cars are designed. Despite the fact that electric cars need no front engines, and true self-driving vehicles won’t require front-facing seats, our autonomous vehicles of today are still modeled after conventional cars. Waymo retrofits Chrysler Pacifica minivans with lasers, computers, and all sorts of screens and sensors for this job, while Tesla has squeezed more discreet self-driving tech into its vehicles using cameras, but keeping the car’s classic silhouette.
Zoox, on the other hand, gave itself no such constraints, which has enabled the company to build a unique vehicle like none on the road–something that resembles human-sized toaster. The Zoox car is smaller than a BMW i3, and completely symmetrical front to back, allowing it to take passengers forward or in reverse without even turning around. (The symmetry also means the vehicle is built from fewer unique parts.) Large automatic doors slide open on each side of the vehicle so it’s as easy to enter as a sun room, while two bench seats face each other inside, like in a wagon. And yet, despite all these unconventional decisions, Zoox believes the entire vehicle will still receive a five-star crash rating before it launches on public roads.
“It’s the benefit of designing from the ground up,” says Chris Stoffel, director of studio engineering and industrial design team lead at Zoox, who walked us through some of the finer points of the design.
A wagon designed like a giant gadget
In many ways, Zoox’s form is self-explanatory. It’s a wagon—a room on wheels—and, as such, it’s shaped like that, while the design cleverly channels air through its own wheel wells to stay aerodynamic.
Instead of being inspired by the silhouettes of vehicles, “we’re going for more of a product aesthetic, something well established in consumer electronics,” says Nahuel Battaglia, senior industrial design lead at Zoox. Indeed, despite its soft edges, the entire design reads gadgety, like you could shrink it to the size of your palm and play with it.
That’s only emphasized by the four sensor pods that stick out from each corner like antennas. The decision might seem lazy—why not integrate the Lidar depth camera and other sensors into the vehicle’s form? But the team frames their approach as a classic instance of form following function. Engineers needed to maximize the view of each sensor, and ensure the vehicle itself wasn’t blocking their view, so they requested a camera in each of the vehicle’s four corners. Each pod has 270-degree vision, which means their field of view overlaps in the sake of safer redundancy.
The other benefit of this overt pod design is that these are modular, complete with their own cleaning fluids to keep a clear view. Without being integrated into the body of the car, the pods can easily be pulled out for …….