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May 27, 2020 10:30 AM, EDT

Amazon Buying Zoox May Save $20 Billion, Put Tesla on Its Heels

A Zoox autonomous car takes a test drive in November 2019 in San Francisco.A Zoox autonomous car takes a test drive in November 2019 in San Francisco. (Andrej Sokolow/dpa via Getty Images)

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Amazon.com Inc.’s talks to buy driverless vehicle startup Zoox Inc. has analysts speculating the deal could save the e-commerce giant tens of billions a year and put auto, parcel and ride-booking companies on their heels.

Shipping costs are one of Amazon’s largest expenses and may reach $90 billion in the coming years, Morgan Stanley’s internet, auto and transport analysts wrote in a report May 27. An autonomous offering could save the company more than $20 billion annually, they estimate.

“Autonomous technology is a natural extension of Amazon’s efforts to build its own third-party logistics network,” Morgan Stanley’s analysts wrote. They see the company being a “clear” competitor to the likes of Tesla Inc. and General Motors Co. and the potential for Amazon to compete in ride-booking and food delivery. United Parcel Service Inc. and FedEx Corp., which perennially rank near the top of Transport Topics’ lists of the largest logistics and for-hire companies, also “will have to respond to keep up.”

Other companies in the automotive and chip industries have also held talks with Zoox about a potential investment, according to people familiar with the matter. At least one other business besides Amazon has offered to buy the company, they added. Zoox is unlikely to sell for less than the more than $1 billion that it has raised, according to the people, who asked not to be identified discussing private negotiations.

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“Zoox has been receiving interest in a strategic transaction from multiple parties and has been working with Qatalyst Partners to evaluate such interest,” the startup said May 26. It declined to comment on Amazon’s interest. A spokeswoman for Amazon declined to comment.

Zoox has demonstrated outsize ambition and has found significant financial backing. The startup wanted to build a fully driverless car by this year.

However, after a 2018 funding round that valued Zoox at $3.2 billion, the startup’s board voted to oust CEO Tim Kentley-Klay. The executive criticized the move, saying the directors were “optimizing for a little money in hand at the expense of profound progress.”

Dow Jones reported that Amazon is in advanced talks to buy Zoox for less than the $3.2 billion valuation from 2018.

Amazon is willing to spend heavily to automate its e-commerce business. The online retail giant purchased warehouse robot-maker Kiva Systems Inc. in 2012 for $775 million and now has tens of thousands of robots in warehouses around the world.

But paying drivers to deliver packages is still one of the biggest costs in the company’s operation. CEO Jeff Bezos announced plans for drone delivery in 2013, though they have yet to materialize at scale. Last year, Amazon revealed an experimental delivery robot called Scout in the Seattle area that rolls on sidewalks like a shopping cart.

Last year, Amazon invested along with Silicon Valley venture firm Sequoia Capital in self-driving startup Aurora Innovation Inc., a startup led by the former heads of Google’s driverless car project and Tesla’s Autopilot team. Amazon also backed Rivian Automotive Inc., the electric pickup and SUV maker. Those bets left Morgan Stanley’s auto analyst questioning earlier this month whether Tesla’s rich valuation is warranted given the competitive threats the company faces.

“We often hear from investors that Tesla could potentially be the Amazon of transportation,” Adam Jonas, who rates Tesla the equivalent of a hold, wrote in a May 17 report. “But what if Amazon is the Amazon of transportation?”

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