Ford, which has plans to have its self-driving cars on the road by 2021, said Friday that it is investing $1 billion in the artificial intelligence company Argo AI, which is run by former executives from Google and Uber’s self-driving car programs.
The $1 billion investment will be made into Argo over the next five years – which makes the company into a subsidiary of Ford, which is a 100 plus year old company. Ford will be the majority shareholder of the company, however the startup will operate independently.
This is part of a much larger strategy that pairs up with some big investments Ford has made on self-driving cars during the past year. Argo’s chief executive, Brian Salesky, previously led hardware development for Google’s self-driving program, while Peter Rander, Argo’s chief operating officer, was an engineering lead at Uber’s Advanced Technology Center. The duo formed Argo AI late last year and will now focus 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, however, requests to confirm how many employees Argo currently has were left unanswered. However, Salesky commented that the AI company plans to hire about 200 people by the end of the year.
“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 major technology companies and automakers race to plant a foothold and capture market share in the burgeoning autonomous vehicle industry, many have either partnered up or acquired startups to accelerate their efforts. Last year, General Motors acquired Cruise Automation, while Uber bought AI startup Geometric Intelligence to create its own in-house artificial intelligence lab.
As part of Ford’s grander plans for its self-driving program, it also made several investments, such as $75 million into Velodyne, a company that makes sensors for self-driving cars, and acquired SAIPS, an Israeli machine learning company.
“Let’s face it,” Fields said. “There’s a war for talent these days.”