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Amazon Will Take Robot Cars to a Whole New Level

Alex Webb

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Amazon.com Inc.’s interest in acquiring a self-driving car pioneer is the prime example (pun intended) of how expectations for driverless vehicles have been recalibrated.

The e-commerce giant is in advanced talks to buy Zoox Inc. for less than the $3.2 billion at which it was valued in 2018, the Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday. Given the California-based startup’s approach to autonomous cars, its fate is particularly instructive.

In a very crowded field, Zoox was practically alone in aiming to build a whole new kind of electric-powered vehicle, and to operate the fleet itself. Peers such as Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo, General Motors Co.’s Cruise unit, Ford Motor Co. and Volkswagen AG’s joint venture Argo AI, and Aurora Innovations Inc. have focused solely on developing the self-driving technology that could subsequently be fitted into vehicles.

Zoox wanted to be Tesla Inc., Waymo and Uber Technologies Inc. all rolled into one.

Back in 2015, that seemed like an attractive proposition. If the triple threat to the automotive industry was autonomous technology, electric drivetrains and ride-hailing, why not embrace all three? After all, there were expectations that by 2020 robotaxis would ferry you around the world’s metropolises. Capital flowed into self-driving car startups, typified by the $1 billion GM spent acquiring Cruise in 2016.

Those dreams, needless to say, have failed to materialize. Companies that had aimed to jump straight to the fourth of five levels of autonomy have quietly downshifted. (The first level of self-driving encompasses driver-assistance functions such as cruise control, and the fifth is full automation.) Bloomberg New Energy Finance doesn’t expect vehicles with Level Four automation to start gaining traction until 2034. Even then, they will likely represent just 831,000 of the 95 million-unit global car market that year.

What’s more, the expense of developing, building and operating a fleet of self-driving cars would be considerable. Even deep-pocketed Alphabet and GM have sought outside investment for their efforts. Established carmakers are meanwhile focusing their capital on electric cars, a more imminent threat. And owning and operating a fleet is expensive too. Zoox had a tough sell to investors: In 15 years’ time, it might have been an attractive business.

Which brings us to Amazon. Even if robotaxis aren’t coming any time soon, there are alternative applications for autonomous technology that fall squarely in the Seattle-based firm’s wheelhouse, namely, logistics. Given Amazon’s shipping costs are set to hit $90 billion a year, tech from Zoox could help save $20 billion in shipping costs, according to Morgan Stanley analysts. Its solutions could be used across warehousing and distribution. Buying Zoox could take Amazon's other moves in this field — an existing investment in Aurora and experiments with self-driving truck specialist Embark and electric vanmaker Rivian — to a whole new level.

Amazon has become the fantasy acquirer for any number of companies seeking a soft landing: theater chains, brick-and-mortar retailers, food deliverers, mobile carriers, real estate brokers, dental suppliers, film studios and plenty more besides.

Sometimes, just sometimes, those deals make sense. Zoox is one of them.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Alex Webb is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Europe's technology, media and communications industries. He previously covered Apple and other technology companies for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.

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