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Ford to invest $1B in A.I. startup toward self-driving cars

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Written by Kamil Arli

Ford is investing $1 billion in a secretive artificial intelligence startup headed by former Google and Uber execs to advance its self-driving car efforts.

Ford Motor Co. said Friday it will invest $1 billion over five years into recently formed artificial intelligence company Argo AI to develop the brains for the company’s self-driving vehicles. Ford said the system also could be licensed to other companies.

Argo AI was founded by former Google and Uber executives, and Ford said staffing will include roboticists and engineers to develop a new software platform for Ford’s planned fully autonomous vehicle planned for 2021. The virtual driver system is the machine-learning software — essentially the brains — of the self-driving car.

THE NEXT DECADE WILL BE DEFINED BY THE AUTOMATION OF THE AUTOMOBILE 

“The next decade will be defined by the automation of the automobile, and autonomous vehicles will have as significant an impact on society as Ford’s moving assembly line did 100 years ago,” Ford President and CEO Mark Fields said in a statement. “As Ford expands to be an auto and a mobility company, we believe that investing in Argo AI will create significant value for our shareholders by strengthening Ford’s leadership in bringing self-driving vehicles to market in the near term and by creating technology that could be licensed to others in the future.”

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THE AUTOMAKER PLANS TO HAVE A FULLY AUTONOMOUS VEHICLE WITHOUT STEERING WHEEL

The automaker plans to have a fully autonomous vehicle without steering wheel, brake pedal or accelorator pedal in 2021 for ride-sharing or ride-hailing purposes. Ford has said it wants to sell 100,000 or more a year of those vehicles.

With its investment, Ford becomes the majority shareholder in Argo AI. Ford said it will combine its team working on the virtual driver system with Argo AI’s. The automaker said it will continue to head development of self-driving vehicle hardware, system integration, manufacturing, design and managing regulatory policy.

By the end of 2017, Argo AI, which is based in Pittsburgh, expects to have more than 200 employees. Those include hires in Southeastern Michigan and the San Francisco area.

The Argo AI board will have five members including Raj Nair, Ford executive vice president of global product development and chief technical officer; John Casesa, Ford group vice president of global strategy; Bryan Salesky, Argo AI CEO and founder; and Peter Rander, Argo AI chief operating officer and founder; and an independent director.

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FORD HAS SAID ITS 2017 ADJUSTED PRE TAX PROFITS WOULD BE LESS THAN 2016

Ford has said its 2017 adjusted pre-tax profits would be less than 2016 as it invests in electrification, self-driving technology and mobility.

The carmaker has made investments in mobility-related companies; last fall it bought Chariot, a San Francisco-based crowd-sourced shuttle service.

In August 2016, Ford announced four investments and partnerships that it said would help it with its autonomous vehicle development. They included investing $75 million in Silicon Valley-based Velodyne, a LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) sensor company; acquiring SAIPS, an Israel-based computer vision and machine learning company; investing in Berkeley, California-based Civil Maps to further develop 3-D mapping and inking an exclusive licensing agreement with Nirenberg Neuroscience LLC, a machine vision company.

Ford Smart Mobility subsidiary last year also reportedly invested into Zoomcar, an India-based car rental company like Zipcar.

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Argo AI’s four top executives all worked at Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center prior to roles at Google’s Self-Driving Car Project or Uber Inc.

Salesky, a computer engineer, worked at Google from 2011-16 in several roles, including director of hardware development for the tech giant’s autonomous car project. Prior to that, he worked at Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center in several roles beginning in 2004.

Rander was an engineering lead at Uber for nearly two years. He helped “launch, grow and lead” teams involved with Uber’s first-generation of self-driving prototypes, according to his LinkedIn profile. He worked at National Robotics Engineering Center for 15 years before joining the ride-hailing company.

Brett Browning, Argo AI vice president of robotics, was a senior engineering manager for two years at Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center alongside Rander. He led the mapping and localization efforts for self-driving cars, according to his LinkedIn profile.

Argo AI Chief Financial Officer Daniel Beaven also worked at Carnegie Mellon prior to a roughly two-year tenure at Uber from 2015-17.

Ford’s stock closed Friday at $12.51 a share, up about 1 percent.

 

About the author

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Kamil Arli

Editor of DigitalReview.co. Digital Media Consultant

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