The race to get autonomous cars ready is hotting up, and Ford is pushing hard to stay at the front of the pack. Having promised fully autonomous ride-sharing cars on the road by 2021, the brand has announced a significant investment in an artificial intelligence startup in the hope of developing a new "virtual driver" for its self-driving offerings.
Ford has chosen Argo AI for its US$1 billion investment, a startup founded by former Uber and Google employees specialising in robotics and artificial intelligence. That's a significant commitment, especially considering the company doubled the size of its teams in Silicon Valley and Palo Alto, and poured money into four (other) startups last year.
The team currently developing the machine-learning software behind autonomous cars will be integrated with the Argo AI team, and the new partnership will collaborate on the virtual driver software for SAE Level Four autonomous cars. As you might expect, Ford will continue to develop the hardware behind the software on its own.
This machine learning brain is, arguably, the most important part of any self driving car. Having taken in the information from cameras and sensors mounted around the car, the brain then needs to tell the steering, throttle and brakes what to do – all in a fraction of a second. What's more, it needs to be able to understand what other drivers are doing anywhere in the world, where there are different driving habits and road rules.
The fresh investment – meted out over the course of five years – will make Ford the majority stakeholder in Argo, but that doesn't mean it will be trying to rule the startup with an iron fist. According to the company, Argo will be able to operate with substantial independence from the rest of Ford, giving it the freedom to try things out faster than a traditional part of the corporate structure.
"Working together with Argo AI gives Ford a distinct competitive advantage at the intersection of the automotive and technology industries," says Raj Nair, Executive VP of Global Product Development at Ford. "This open collaboration is unlike any other partnership – allowing us to benefit from combining the speed of a startup with Ford's strengths in scaling technology, systems integration and vehicle design."
The investment is yet more proof of how seriously manufacturers are taking autonomous cars. Tesla continues to push its Autopilot software forward, BMW has joined forces with Intel to get the iNext to market in 2021 and there's a smorgasbord of smaller companies working on their own software for self-driving.