Ford fills up ex-Google, Uber engineers' tank: $1bn pours into Argo AI

Sizable bet on an autonomous car by 2021

Ford is investing $1bn in Argo AI, a startup cofounded by engineers who resigned from Google and Uber’s autonomous car projects.

Competition to develop the world’s first completely autonomous car is fierce. Companies like Audi, Tesla, Baidu, Nissan, and Toyota are racing to get their brand-spanking-new technologies on the road by 2020.

In a desperate bid to not be left behind, Ford has also ushered in an AI startup and hopes to push its robo-cars out by 2021.

It’s an ambitious goal, considering autonomous car development efforts haven’t always gone smoothly. Fatal car crashes have marred the public’s confidence in safety issues. Christopher Hart, chairman of US National Transportation Safety Board, was skeptical of the technology and highlighted the need for the federal government to address regulation issues.

Brian Salesky, CEO of Argo AI, was director of hardware for Google’s self-driving car project but left in 2016. Before the project was rebranded as a separate Alphabet company called Waymo – but after Google ramped up the pressure – three of its senior members resigned: Chris Urmson, CTO and technical lead; Jiajun Zhu, principal software engineer; and Dave Ferguson, another software lead in the team.

Urmson told Bloomberg he was frustrated with the pace of progress, suggesting not all was good under the hood.

Dmitri Dolgov, head of self driving technology at Waymo, told the audience during a presentation at the AAAI conference in San Francisco that more work was required to improve the robustness of its cars.

Waymo’s car may have driven a blind man to Taco Bell and helped him pick up his dry cleaning in California, but it isn’t quite ready to face all the unknown dangers on untested roads.

Comfort factor

People get too comfortable and put too much trust in it when they see the technology work for a short period of time. But under the hood, it’s not good enough to trust completely, Dolgov said recently.

Peter Rander, Argo AI’s COO, was engineering lead at Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center. Uber has faced difficulties piloting its cars in San Francisco. It hadn’t secured the right permits to allow testing, and the Bicycle Coalition, a non-profit organization hoping to make the city’s streets safer for cycling, reported that its cars would unknowingly (and illegally) swerve into bike lanes.

Ford is banking on Argo AI’s experience, and is looking to combine “the robotics talent and expertise of Argo AI” with its “virtual driver system.”

Argo AI will receive the money over five years and expects to have more than 200 employees by the end of this year.

The company’s headquarters will be based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and will have major sites in southeastern Michigan and the San Francisco Bay Area. ®

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