Who's ready for a ride in a robo taxi? Since you all know how to Google, how to Uber, and how to Netflix and chill. Now, can Jeff Bezos get you to ZOOX?

That's the plan. On one recent Monday, the Amazon owned Zoox unveiled an electric autonomous vehicle as part of what will likely be an aggressive attempt by the company to make robo-taxis a thing.

That effort has had a rocky start for Zoox - as well as for Google, General Motors, Uber and several Chinese companies.

They have spent billions of dollars over the last decade and suffered all kinds of setbacks, including management upheavals, technology snafus and tragic accidents, all in a quest to remove the driver from the front seat.

Zoox, founded in 2014, was once valued at $3 billion, in headier days for autonomous vehicles. Amazon paid some $1.2 billion for the company earlier this year.

Like a lot of pioneers, Zoox has had its share of challenges, but progress slowed quickly when the pandemic hit.

The chief executive Aicha Evans, and the chief technology officer and founder Jesse Levinson, told me in an interview that the company was forced to temporarily shut down all on-site operations for a while - and then had to do so again more recently.

The company also needed capital to survive - either from new investors or a sale. ''We definitely thought we could be dead,'' said Ms. Evans, referring to when the pandemic hit.

''But a crisis like that one can also also focus you to seek out investors who have a long-term mindset that this kind of technology requires.

Enter the e-commerce giant. And the $1.2 billion that Amazon paid for the ambitious car company now looks like a bargain.

''In a nutshell, we want to eventually move people around a city,'' said Ms. Evans, who once geld a top strategy job at Intel. ''It's purpose built.''

Zoox isn't the only company taking steps forward. Many are hoping to bring fleets of robotic taxis into the mainstream within the next few years, and a number of them have been making headway in recent months.

The Chinese driverless service AutoX has rolled out in Shenzhen. Google's Waymo has done the same in a small town in Arizona. The Chinese company Badu got a permit to test some cars on public roads in heavily trafficked Beijing. General Motor's  Cruise is testing in San Francisco.

And Aurora, run by former Google autonomous executive acquired, acquired Uber's Advanced Technologies Group for $4 billion ]and the car sharing giant is investing $400 million in the company].

These advances are more interesting in the context of a pandemic. Public transportation, like buses and subways, have seen massive declines in usage. 

And the Uber investments are particularly noteworthy, since the idea of climbing in a car with an Uber driver has become a much more  dicey proposition.

[Uber also had some safety and labor problems, as it faced demands to treat drivers like traditional, full-time workers]

WHEN masks, open windows and other safety precautions are necessary, the idea of a private autonomous car in which you and your family can ride alone has certainly become more appealing.

The World Students Society thanks author Kara Swisher.


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