Will Ford’s $1B AI Investment Change the Calculus for Driverless Cars?

  • Natalie Mattila
  • February 13, 2017
  • 0

Artificial intelligence is coming to the transportation industry, as evidenced by Ford Motor Co.’s latest $1 billion investment in startup Argo AI, but will it spur utilization of driverless cars as a transportation service?

While it doesn’t appear likely, at least for now, Ford has its eyes on the driverless prize, and looks to bring autonomous vehicles to market by 2021 — and with it, a service for moving goods and people.

Autonomous vehicles over the next five to 10 years are more practically going to look like cars with smart operating and AI-enabled navigation systems, that are capable of driving themselves, Colleen Poynton, vice president of Core Innovation Capital, a venture capital firm, told Mobility Buzz. However, people will continue to have the option to control the car and sit in the driver’s seat as a commuter; they will continue to own the car themselves as an asset, Poynton said.

“I just don’t think for a large portion of the country that transportation-as-a-service will make sense financially,” Poynton said. It all comes down to the utilization of assets, and who would own the autonomous fleet in that environment.

However, in larger cities such as Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco, it’s “totally possible” that you will see vehicles that will not have drivers, and you will see more and more people accessing them on a service basis, she added.

Pictured are: Peter Rander, COO, Argo AI; Mark Fields, President and CEO, Ford Motor Co.; Bryan Salesky, CEO, Argo AI; and Raj Nair, EVP of Product Development, Ford Motor Co. Salesky and Rander are alumni of Carnegie Mellon National Robotics Engineering Center and former leaders on the self-driving car teams of Google and Uber, respectively.

Ford Motor Co., for example, is working to develop a virtual driver system for the automaker’s autonomous vehicle coming in 2021 — and for potential licenses to other companies. The OEM will invest $1 billion over the next five years in artificial intelligence company Argo AI, and will be the majority stakeholder in the startup.

Argo AI, founded by former Google and Uber leaders, is bringing together engineers and roboticists working in autonomy from inside and outside of Ford to help develop Ford’s machine-learning software that acts as the brain of autonomous vehicles. This innovative partnership will work to deliver the virtual driver system for Ford’s SAE level 4 self-driving vehicles.

Additionally, the OEM’s subsidiary, Ford Smart Mobility LLC, will take lead on the commercialization strategy for Ford’s self-driving vehicles. This includes choices for using autonomous vehicles to move goods and people — such as ridesharing, ride-hailing, or package-delivery fleets.

Artificial intelligence is “definitely coming” to the transportation industry, and it’s going to be more and more integrated into cars, Poynton said. “However, initially, we ourselves aren’t going to feel anything massively different — we are going to continue to sit behind the wheel, and in the background there is going to be a smart operating system there. Then, more and more — especially in city centers — you are going to see people be able to not be behind the wheel, and the car will be able to just operate itself.”

Argo AI’s initial focus will be to support Ford’s autonomous vehicle development and production, but in the future, the startup could license its technology to other sectors and companies looking for autonomous capability.

Argo AI, based in Pittsburgh, has engineering hubs in Pittsburgh, Southeastern Michigan, and the Bay Area of California. The company plans to have more than 200 employees by the end of 2017.

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