Homepage / Technology / An inside look at Ford’s $1 billion bet on Argo A.I.
Former China internet regulator probed for suspected graft Cramer Remix: For investors scared of this market, it could be time to sell Cramer: Bitcoin and junk bonds are bubbles, but stocks aren't overvalued Marvell CEO on creating an internet of things infrastructure 'pure play' with Cavium acquisition Stocks are 'absolutely' overpriced, but it doesn't matter, says Empire Executions' Peter Costa Cramer: The market's 'era of good feelings' is lifting stocks despite bad news Asia set to open higher after US stocks reach record highs There's a '50/50' chance Meg Whitman will run for president in 2020, says Kevin O'Leary Uber hid a hack that exposed data of 57 million users and drivers for more than a year Trader who tried to bet against tech changes his tune Meg Whitman to leave role as CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise, shares tumble 6% Salesforce earnings: 39 cents a share vs expected EPS of 37 cents Electric trucks could sell faster than cars, but Tesla may be aiming at wrong end of the market Disney executive and Pixar co-founder John Lasseter takes leave of absence: Report JPMorgan has a new cybersecurity play, which it says could rally more than 20% JPMorgan reportedly getting into bitcoin futures trading even though Dimon believes it is a fraud Facebook allowed the buying of illegal housing ads months after it said it fixed the problem: Report Alphabet's Eric Schmidt: It can be 'very difficult' for Google to understand truth Forget FANG. These four tech stocks are outperforming this year, adding $600 billion in market cap The advertising-based internet is destroying society, tech pioneer says The case for reforming airport-slot allocation Bank of America sees end of bull market coming in 2018: Here's how it will happen Chinese micro-lenders are plunging on US exchanges after new regulations at home Wall Street analysts say AT&T will ‘prevail’ against DOJ over Time Warner These are the 10 fastest growing jobs in the U.S. US existing home sales rise 2 percent, beat expectations Read this before you buy a new 4K TV this Black Friday Suddenly bullish Goldman sees a big 2018 for stocks due to 'rational exuberance' Shoe retailer DSW stock plunges after company blames hurricanes for earnings miss Boeing shares to rally to new record on 'robust demand' for aircraft: Jefferies PayPal users can now send invoices over Facebook Messenger Amazon has suddenly become a big marketplace for selling genetic tests Apple iPhone X reportedly assembled with illegal student labor Stocks making the biggest moves premarket: LOW, HRL, MDT, DSW, CPB, T & more Dollar Tree profit beats estimates on higher customer traffic A cryptocurrency start-up disappeared with $375,000 from an ICO and nobody can find them Billionaire Mark Cuban says the 'big losers' of the move to block the AT&T-Time Warner merger are Facebook and Google Chip maker Micron, up almost 120% this year, has way more room to run, technician says Buckle up: Tesla could surge to $400 and then get cut in half in 2018, Morgan Stanley predicts This ride-hailing service will pick up your kids where school buses don't go China to fend off bubble risk with tighter property rules Broadcom eyes big changes for Qualcomm's patent practices Political turmoil is good for Angela Merkel, says analyst Iran President Rouhani declares end of Islamic State China's Tencent surpasses Facebook in valuation a day after breaking $500 billion barrier German liberal party member blames socialists for political turmoil, says there was 'zero' compromise Merkel's political future may hinge on one big gamble Tesla’s breakneck expansion speed could be a car crash Finance chiefs say bitcoin is 'real' but many think it's in a bubble right now European markets seen mostly lower on German political uncertainty UK's embattled government set for budget update — here's all you need to know More than $30 million worth of cryptocurrency was just stolen by hackers, company says Trump's latest move on North Korea is confusing experts US Treasury Dept. imposes sanctions on North Korea to curb military programs How personal shopping is giving retailers vital customer data India received a 'surprise' upgrade, but other ratings agencies may not be quick to follow SoftBank funding may spur Uber to re-think tough Southeast Asian market GOP plan will ultimately raise taxes on 50% of Americans, nonpartisan assessment says The FCC has plans to dismantle the rule protecting a neutral internet Cramer Remix: Forget the $450M painting, Intuitive Surgical is the da Vinci of stocks Cramer: The bulls are right about Ollie's Bargain Outlet, but the bears may have a point Airbnb lashes out at Marriott as clash between Silicon Valley and the hotel industry intensifies Cramer gets even more bullish on Netflix and Amazon after comments from Liberty Media's John Malone Cramer's take on Wall Street's top 15 'anointed' stocks for 2017 Asia set to open higher, following US gains overnight Colorado hits Uber with $8.9 million fine over shady drivers Eight women allege Charlie Rose sexually harassed them: Report Market is 'clearly near to a top,' says longtime bull Jeremy Siegel The start-up behind Denver's 200-mph Hyperloop system: 'We love regulation' Tesla has dropped more than 20 percent from September's all-time high The debt time bomb that keeps growing and now equals nearly half of US GDP Square will generate $30 million in annual sales from bitcoin in 2 years, Credit Suisse predicts It's not the economy, stupid. What retail advisors are really worried about this holiday season Vivendi declines to try to take over Ubisoft, for now FanDuel CEO and co-founder Nigel Eccles is leaving to start an eSports company Bitcoin is working well for some big-ticket purchases despite its volatility Ex-Facebook privacy manager says company cares more about data collection than protecting users For its 10th anniversary, Jeff Bezos posted 'before' and 'after' photos of Kindle on Instagram America’s culture wars are spreading to hotels Wall Street is betting against Tinder. Here's why the company's going to succeed Standpoint's Ronnie Moas predicts bitcoin will surge another 70% Apple's new visitor center is now open to the public and dishing out some exclusive swag Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff: 'There's no finish line when it comes to equality' If the US had this H1-B fight in the past, we'd never have gotten Elon Musk, says Roger McNamee The stock market is 'dancing on the rim of a volcano,' warns investment bank eBay leans on AI to help you find the right gift for the holiday season How to find out what Google knows about you and limit the data it collects Merkel says she would prefer new elections to minority government Major AI funding boost in UK aims to fuel driverless car revolution Amazon launches a cloud service for US intelligence agencies Gamers are overreacting to EA's ‘Star Wars’ controversy, publishers should raise prices: Analyst US credit access, financial fragility improve: Fed survey Elon Musk teases flying cars: ‘Rocket tech applied to a car opens up revolutionary possibilities’ Amazon shares to keep rallying as company uses massive spending to deepen its 'moat': Analyst Uber set to buy self-driving cars from Volvo, rivaling Lyft's fleet GM shares upgraded because of automaker's 'advanced' autonomous technology Number of DDoS attack attempts increasing, research shows Victoria's Secret fashion show hits Shanghai without Katy Perry and supermodel Gigi Hadid Jack Bogle’s 5 bold investment predictions for 2018 and beyond EU's preference is ambitious trade deal with UK, Barnier says


An inside look at Ford’s $1 billion bet on Argo A.I.

Somewhere between the 14th and 15th floors in a concrete stairwell, Bryan Salesky pauses, searching for the right words to explain his mission for the foreseeable future. He wants to give cars the eyes, ears, and brains they need to operate without humans. And he wants to do it for Ford Motor Company by 2021.

The CEO of Argo AI — a startup that appeared seemingly out of nowhere six months ago, with $1 billion in backing from Ford — is hardly alone in the pursuit to transform the automobile into a vehicle controlled by artificial intelligence. Though a fire alarm interrupted an interview in a San Francisco conference room, Salesky stays focused and collected. And if he is feeling the pressure to develop and deliver this system so Ford — its sole customer, backer, and majority shareholder — can deploy fully autonomous vehicles in just four years’ time, it doesn’t show.

Instead, he comes off as optimistic about the company he founded with Peter Rander, who, as former engineering lead at the Uber Advanced Technologies Group, helped bring the ride-hail company’s first-generation self-driving prototypes to public roads.

Yet, Argo stands out from the hundreds of companies pursuing self-driving technology due to its unique deal with Ford that has invested big in this little-known startup that is now primed to compete with Google’s Waymo, Uber, GM’s Cruise Automation, Tesla, and Aurora — a short list of heavyweights all working on a so-called “full stack solution” of self-driving cars.

Argo was literally yanked out of obscurity by the Ford deal, but there are dozens (if not more) AI / auto startups still wallowing in obscurity. “Artificial intelligence will be an essential player in autonomous vehicles of the future,” said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst with Cox Automotive’s Autotrader. “That’s why automakers like General Motors, Toyota, and Ford are snapping up companies with AI expertise.”

Argo won the lottery, essentially. (Its website is still laughably sparse.) What remains to be seen is if Ford made a wise roll of the dice. Much of exactly what Argo is doing remains unknown.

In broad terms, Argo is developing self-driving technology that Ford can use to deploy fully autonomous Level 4-capable vehicles for commercial on-demand service. In other words: something like a self-driving taxi service. Level 4 is a designation by SAE International that means the car takes over all of the driving in certain conditions.

More from The Verge:
ScreenDrive: Tesla Model S is the epitome of a tablet on wheels
Fiat Chrysler joins BMW in Intel’s self-driving super group
Google spinoff Waymo patents softer self-driving cars to protect pedestrians

Argo is tasked with developing the entire “virtual driver system,” which means all of the sensors like cameras, radar, light detection, and ranging radar known as LIDAR, as well as the software and compute platform. Ford has also charged Argo with how to create high-definition maps, keep them “fresh,” and sustain that over time, Ford’s CTO and vice president of research and advanced engineering Ken Washington said during a presentation at The Information’s autonomous vehicle summit in June.

The end result is a full-stack system designed just for Ford’s self-driving vehicles so they know where they are in the world, can detect and understand objects in their environment, and then make the right decisions.

The road ahead for Argo AI — and Ford, for the matter — is dotted with obstacles. Argo is now battling with the competition to recruit roboticists and machine learning experts. It’s a fight that is pushing salaries, including bonuses and equity offerings, for self-driving car engineers well beyond $250,000 a year.

And then there are the technical challenges, which must be solved by 2021 if Ford is to meet its own publicly declared deadline.

“I think that Ford had a start,” Salesky said, noting the company’s decade of autonomous research and development. “There was nothing that Ford was doing that was inherently wrong or busted. They were pursuing one method and we were like, ‘Hey there are a bunch of methods we can pursue and all combine to solve this problem robustly.'”

The two big technical challenges are with perception, or the ability for the car to see and understand objects around it, and decision-making.

Salesky, along with many others in the field, say perception is the stickier problem, because it’s important for the autonomous vehicle to not only detect relevant objects, but to predict what those objects like a car, pedestrian, or bicyclist are going to do. Once it has the correct and robust information, making a decision is relatively easy.

There are two schools of thought on how to solve these problems. Startups like Drive.ai and tech giant Nvidia argue that deep neural networks — a sophisticated form of artificial intelligence algorithms that allow a computer to learn by using a series of connected networks to identify patterns in data — can be applied to everything the self-driving car does from recognizing objects to making decisions.

Proponents of deep learning say these algorithms most closely mimic how the human brain learns. But Salesky contends deep learning requires more research and computing power for it to be used in autonomous vehicles in the near term.

The other approach — and the one Argo is taking — is to train these deep nets to solve very specific problems and then surround that with machine learning algorithms that tie into the broader system.

Machine learning is a form of artificial intelligence that uses algorithms to identify and analyze patterns in data, learn from it, and then make predictions. For instance, machine learning algorithms are used to take data from cameras or LIDAR to teach the vehicle how to recognize a stop sign or moving car.

To the casual observer, it might seem like the race to deploy autonomous vehicles began less than two years ago. And by some measure, it did. High-profile acquisitions — like GM’s purchase of Cruise Automation — and a string of public declarations by tech companies and automakers to bring self-driving cars to roadways have dominated the headlines.

But in reality, the road to developing autonomous vehicles began in earnest more than a decade ago.

Scan the directories of every company working on self-driving cars today, and you’ll likely discover the names of people who participated in at least one of the three autonomous vehicle challenges in 2004, 2005, and 2007 that were funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Since those early days of research and experimentation, a group of robotics and machine learning experts have migrated between academia to the world of startups and large corporations — often times moving from co-worker to competitor.

Those early projects forged the people and relationships that are now showing up in the some of the leading self-driving car programs globally. Argo AI is one example.

When Salesky left the Google self-driving project in September, the race to deploy autonomous vehicles had already shifted into overdrive, with automakers, tech companies, and startups jockeying for a leading position — a battle that would have seemed ridiculous just three years before. Salesky was part of that small circle that companies coveted.

When Salesky arrived at the National Robotics Engineering Center, a unit within Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, he found his true love. He was senior software engineer on the winning team in the 2007 autonomous vehicle challenge funded by DARPA. Chris Urmson, who would later head up Google’s self-driving project and recently co-founded self-driving car startup Aurora, was director of technology of that team.

Salesky made the leap over to the Google self-driving car project, where he eventually became director of hardware development. During his time at Google, he headed up discussions with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles that led to a partnership to produce self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans.

In short, Salesky held a golden ticket to a well-funded startup or a high-profile position at a major automaker or tech company. He chose option number three.

“I felt like the next step should be something I’d want to commit to for a very long time, and something that would give us the best opportunity possible to get a product out the door,” Salesky said. “I thought the best way to do that was to start a company and find an OEM that was like-minded with us and have a deep partnership.”

Around the same time, Ford was ramping up its own self-driving car plans: in August announced it would deploy a commercial self-driving car service by 2021. The automaker said it would achieve that target date by expanding its research lab in Palo Alto, California, and investing or buying autonomous vehicle technology startups. All of this is now ultimately the responsibility of Jim Hackett, who in May took over as president and CEO of Ford. Hackett reports directly to Bill Ford, executive chairman, great-grandson of the founder.

Not long after leaving Google, Salesky and Rander started their new company with a small investment from an undisclosed source; neither Salesky or Ford will identify the source of the seed money. Negotiations with Ford, which included some involvement from Bill Ford, began in earnest before the end of 2016. The deal was sealed and announced in February. While the former CEO Mark Fields was privy to negotiations with Argo AI, the primary players were Washington; Raj Nair, the former CTO who now leads Ford North America; and John Casesa, group vice president of global strategy.

Argo was not acquired by Ford, stressed Salesky, the only time he exhibits even a smidge of prickliness in a long and winding interview. Ford is the majority stakeholder and has two seats on a five-seat board. Salesky and Rander have two seats as well. Still, Ford’s influence is notable. Since Argo AI’s public debut in February, it has amassed more than 100 employees, many of them Ford engineers who were working in the R&D department on a virtual driver system.

“Most of our software engineers, the architects who know how to write well-designed and scalable software, they went to Argo,” said Washington.

An examination of LinkedIn profiles shows the largest percentage of Argo AI engineers and data scientists at this point have come from Ford, followed by more than a dozen from Uber Advanced Technologies Group, and a smattering of other tech companies and organizations, including the NREC, Apple, Microsoft, and Google.

The plan is to hit 200 employees by the end of the year. Employees will be spread out across Argo’s three locations in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Mountain View, California; and Dearborn, Michigan, where the autonomous vehicles Ford uses for testing collect data. Argo will refresh the virtual driver system in those cars toward the end of the year. Argo has also taken over, and is now evolving, a simulation system that Ford was developing, according to Washington.

As young as Argo is, it’s not quite accurate to call these “early days” anymore. Videos of fully autonomous test vehicles navigating streets successfully (with a human behind the wheel, just in case) no longer hold the same cachet as they did a year ago. The long technical and regulatory slog is on. In Salesky’s view, it’s not a winner-takes-all game. “Three trillion miles are driven each year in the US. That’s a huge amount of opportunity,” Salesky said. “There’s room for more than one player in this space.”

Tesla, GM, and Volvo are some of the other car companies actively pursuing autonomous development. But still, other automakers are pooling resources and working with suppliers, skeptical about the risks of investing in autonomy. In contrast, Ford and Argo are holding their cards close to the vest during this R&D phase. It’s a partnership that appears to rest on being the player that comes in first.

Source: Tech CNBC
An inside look at Ford’s billion bet on Argo A.I.

Comments are closed.