Despite initially taking to Twitter upon his dismissal to brand Zoox board’s decision as an example of Silicon Valley being “up to its worst tricks,” Mr Kentley Klay has since kept his head down, eschewing all media enquiries. He took time out to get over the shock at his treatment, before researching his new venture.
He tells The Australian Financial Review that HYPR’s vehicles will use more advanced AI than Zoox, Google’s Waymo, Uber and others already in the race to market. The software piloting the vehicles is in testing, and he is eager to leave “stealth mode” and get back into the fray.
“HYPR is a robotics artificial intelligence company, which I’m tremendously excited about. The vision to create ahead-of-the-curve autonomous mobility products,” Kentley Klay says.
Alongside Mr Forrest, HYPR is also being backed by US-based venture capital firm R7 Partners, with a $US10 million seed investment that already values the nascent company at $US200 million.
While HYPR’s purpose may sound very much like Zoox mark II, Mr Kentley Klay says it is the branch of AI that he is using that will make it a step change ahead of the current driverless vehicle makers.
Like the AlphaGo software, which learned to beat the world’s best human players at 2500 year-old Chinese board game Go, Mr Kentley Klay says HYPR’s vehicles will be driven by a type of AI based on reinforcement learning that effectively teaches itself.
The system performs actions in different environments and develops its own set of values to evaluate the success or failure, and thereby develops policies that vehicles will follow in future.
“One of the hardest things about autonomous mobility is the prediction piece; what’s around me and what should I do? If you get that wrong, you have an incident and you’re off the road, if you get it right you have a very big business on your hands,” Mr Kentley Klay says.
“So at HYPR, we are using reinforcement learning on test vehicles. It sounds very sci-fi, but they actually write their own code of how to drive … The belief is that if the AI develops these policies, it ultimately leads to a more robust system, that is high performance and with less compute power required at the same time.
“HYPR will be a next generation, integrated autonomous mobility company. We are developing the product, the vehicle and the artificial intelligence.”
Mr Kentley Klay says Zoox and other rivals like the General Motors-owned Cruise, Waymo, Uber and Tesla are using a “second generation” of AI, which combines classically coded systems with some deep learning, whereas HYPR represents a third generation he describes as an end-to-end learning system.
The system is based on vision and works on neural networks, is connected to the cloud and learns as it drives.
Moving on from Zoox
Despite the acrimonious nature of his departure from Zoox, Mr Kentley Klay says he is still a big supporter of the company. He no longer has an investment in Zoox after the Amazon sale and says he still wishes it well, despite building a competing product.
“On one level, it’s very nice. There’s not many people that have two plays in the autonomous mobility space, so I think it’s fantastic that Zoox is still going and I wish them the best,” he says.
“But I’m very excited that I get to take everything I’ve learned and recapitalise it with a new team and bring it forward in a new way.”
Mr Kentley Klay is clearly still unhappy about the manner of his departure from Zoox, declining to go into details about the process that saw him removed in favour of former Intel executive Aicha Evans, a leader who was clearly more willing to pursue a sale of the company.
“What happened at Zoox was very imperfect. I think it’s been quantified now in the sale of the company at a price that is below its valuation when I was leading it. It didn’t maintain value,” he says.
“As a founder of Zoox, I’ll always be protective of it no matter what, and it has a chance now, under the cover of Amazon, to still realise its vision, it’s really down to the leadership there now.”
‘Twiggy’ comes calling
However, it was the harsh nature of his departure from Zoox that led to his initial contact with Mr Forrest, who cold called him to express his support after hearing he’d been fired.
The two had never met, but Australia’s richest man clearly saw a bit of himself in the spurned entrepreneur.
“Obviously I’d heard of Andrew, but I’d never met him … He said ‘Tim, I’ve been following you for a while and I think you’re the real deal. Don’t worry about what’s happened, I was ousted from my first company, Anaconda Nickel, this is going to make you a better man, a stronger leader’,” Mr Kentley Klay recalls.
“He said ‘I was going to invest in Zoox, but I love you and I love autonomy, so how about we get something going?’ … I think his exact words were ‘I’ll be chairman, you can be CEO and we’ll start off with $200 million’, and that was like 20 seconds into the call.”
Due to his state of mind after being ousted at Zoox, Mr Kentley Klay says he was not yet ready to jump straight back into building a company, so politely declined. However, he and Mr Forrest struck up a friendship and met a few times, where they discussed his interest in autonomous vehicles at his mines.
In March, Kentley Klay formed HYPR, hiring a number of former Zoox colleagues, and says Mr Forrest’s offer of support still stood.
“It was very cool of Andrew to reach out, because just after you’ve been fired as a CEO I guess most people’s sentiment would be, ‘there’s something not right with this guy’, whereas Andrew said, ‘No, I believe in you’,” Mr Kentley Klay says.
“He is a great man, he is a founder’s founder, and I super respect that he was able to read the tea leaves about what was really going on, and showed belief in me when many didn’t.”
HYPR launches Mr Kentley Klay right back into the driverless car melee as the COVID-19 era has given even more impetus to the idea of catching a lift from a car without a human behind the wheel.
In October, Waymo opened up an ongoing trial it had been running in parts of Phoenix, Arizona to the general public, meaning driverless cab rides are now a reality there. It is still only in limited areas where the geography is conducive and fully mapped, and where regulations are relatively relaxed, but it represents an important step towards a future Mr Kentley Klay has long envisaged.
He says the technology is developing phenomenally quickly, and that while not all the companies in the space will be successful, he believes Australia and many other countries will see their first driverless services relatively soon.
“As an industry it’s charging forward at a tremendous rate … It definitely is a difficult problem to solve but I would say that by 2025 you will have on-demand mobility emerging in geo-fenced regions, in the world’s greatest cities,” Mr Kentley Klay says.