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Zoox gets self-driving auto permit to build Uber for robo cars

A visitor looks at the 'F 015 Luxury in Motion' autonomous driving vehicle at the Mercedes stand on the first press day of the Frankfurt Auto Show IAA in Frankfurt, Germany, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015. (AP Photo/Jens Meyer)
A visitor looks at the 'F 015 Luxury in Motion' autonomous driving vehicle at the Mercedes stand on the first press day of the Frankfurt Auto Show IAA in Frankfurt, Germany, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015. (AP Photo/Jens Meyer)

(Bloomberg) -- Zoox Inc., a relatively unknown startup with the goal of building fully autonomous vehicles, was granted permission by California to test self-driving cars on public roads in the state.

This marks the 12th company to receive such a permit. Others include Google parent Alphabet Inc., Ford Motor Co., Tesla Motors Inc. and Cruise Automation, which was acquired by General Motors Co. this month to help bolster the automaker’s efforts to develop self-driving vehicles. Zoox aims to create self-driving cars for a ride-hailing service similar to those offered by Uber Technologies Inc. and Lyft Inc., according to a report last year in the trade publication IEEE Spectrum.

Auto industry has new competition

Uber has been working on its own autonomous-vehicle project, following in the footsteps of Google and Apple Inc. The automotive industry is finding itself competing against fast-moving tech companies that are new to the world of cars and threatening to upend a century-old industry.

Zoox didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Tim Kentley-Klay, an Australian designer, is working on the secretive startup with Jesse Levinson, who worked at Stanford University with Sebastian Thrun, co-creator of Google’s driverless car project, according to the IEEE Spectrum report. It said the startup aims to have fully autonomous taxis on the road by 2020.

Zoox applied on March 16 for the permit, which was issued Tuesday, said Jessica Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Motor Vehicles. The permit covers one car and seven drivers, she said.

Mobility-as-a-service

In recent months, Zoox appears to have been expanding its efforts. Dan Cooperman, former general counsel for Apple and Oracle Corp., joined Zoox’s board in December, as did Laurie Yoler, former president of Qualcomm Labs, according to their LinkedIn pages. The LinkedIn profile of Joseph Wu, who helped build Tesla’s autopilot team as senior engineering recruiter, said he joined Zoox in January. In the past seven days, the startup has posted several job openings on LinkedIn, including for engineers and quality assurance testers.

“Zoox is developing fully autonomous vehicles and the supporting ecosystem required to bring the technology to market at scale,” according to one Zoox post on LinkedIn. “Sitting at the intersection of robotics, machine learning, and design, Zoox aims to provide the next generation of mobility-as-a-service in urban environments.”

--With assistance from Eric Newcomer.

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