Ford has invested $1 billion in a joint venture with Argo AI, a Pittsburgh-based company with ties to Carnegie Mellon. The goal is to completely outfit Ford vehicles with self-driving technology. Interestingly, this isn’t a case of a large company simply hiring talent but the creation of an entirely separate company with an independent equity structure.
Ford is the “majority stakeholder,” but will operate with “substantial independence.” Employees will receive equity in the company. The investment will be made over five years.
“AI makers know you basically need an automaker to make an auto,” said a person familiar with the deal commenting on Ford’s decision to connect with the company.
“Argo AI will develop and deploy the latest advancements in artificial intelligence, machine learning and computer vision to help build safe and efficient self-driving vehicles that enable these transformations and more,” wrote CEO Bryan Salesky. “The challenges are significant, but we are a team that believes in tackling hard, meaningful problems to improve the world. Our ambitions can only be realized if we are willing to partner with others and keep an open mind about how to solve problems.”
Salesky worked at the Carnegie Mellon University National Robotics Engineering Center and, in 2011, led self-driving hardware at Google.
Other team leaders include Dr. Brett Browning and Dr. Peter Rander. Both left CMU for Uber and recently made the switch to Argo. The company is targeting “full autonomy” by 2021. The two are part of the slow exodus of researchers from Uber two years after that company hired robotics faculty away from CMU.
Ford’s billion dollar investment in a company two months old is, arguably, quite bold. Sources say that the team in place has extensive experience in building autonomous vehicles for Caterpillar and others and it seems this is the best — and fastest — way for Ford to access self-driving talent.