Ford, which has plans to put self-driving cars on the road by 2021, said Friday that it will invest $1 billion in the artificial intelligence company Argo AI, which is run by former leaders of Google and Uber’s self-driving car programs.
The $1 billion investment over the next five years – which turns the AI startup into a subsidiary of the more-than-100-year-old automaker – is part of a string of big bets Ford has made on self-driving cars in the last year. Argo’s chief executive, Brian Salesky, previously led hardware development for Google’s self-driving program. Peter Rander, Argo’s chief operating officer, was an engineering lead at Uber’s Advanced Technology Center. The pair formed Argo AI late next year and will now focus primarily on Ford’s autonomous vehicle efforts.
“With Argo AI’s agility and also Ford’s scale, we’re combining the benefits of a technology startup...with the experience and discipline we have,” Mark Fields, Ford’s chief executive, told reporters Friday. “We firmly believe this strengthens our business and our leadership in autonomy.”
Ford’s board of directors approved the deal on Wednesday, Fields said. Some members of Ford’s existing autonomous vehicle team will join Argo. Salesky declined to say how many employees Argo currently has, but said the AI company plans to hire about 200 people by the end of the year. Ford will be a majority stakeholder in Argo, but the startup will operate independently.
“We founded [Argo] with the intent and the vision of wanting to see self-driving vehicles made available at scale,” Salesky said. “In order to do that, you really need the scale of a company like Ford.”
Raj Nair, Ford’s chief technical officer, said the company plans to build an autonomous vehicle platform than can run across Ford’s line of vehicles, and it could license the technology out to other companies. Fields compared the potential impact of Ford’s plans to mass-produce autonomous vehicles to how Ford changed automotive manufacturing by introducing the moving assembly line in 1913.
As automakers and tech companies race to develop autonomous vehicles, many have partnered with or purchased startups to accelerate their efforts. Last year, Uber bought the artificial intelligence startup called Geometric Intelligence to create an in-house AI lab. General Motors bought Cruise Automation, another self-driving startup.
And Ford also made a series of investments last year to boost its self-driving program. It invested $75 million into Velodyne, a company that makes sensors for self-driving cars, and acquired an Israeli machine learning company called SAIPS.
“Let's face it,” Fields said. “There’s a war for talent these days.”