Ford is going all in on self-driving tech. The automaker said today it plans to invest $1 billion over the next five years in Argo AI, an artificial intelligence company founded by former Google and Uber employees to develop autonomous driving technology.
"We think automation is going to define the automobile in the next decade, and autonomous vehicles will have as significant an impact on society as Ford’s moving assembly line did 100 years ago," Mark Fields, Ford's president and chief executive, said at a press event in San Francisco announcing the partnership.
Argo AI will work exclusively with Ford on building a virtual driver system, with the goal of Ford delivering an autonomous vehicle in 2021. While everything Argo AI works on during that time will be made available exclusively to Ford, over time there’s the potential for Argo AI to also license that technology to other automakers.
With the investment, Ford will become the majority stakeholder in Argo AI. The company has been structured to operate with a good amount of independence.
"From an accounting standpoint, Argo AI is a subsidiary of Ford," says Fields; however, he stopped short of calling the partnership an outright acquisition. Employees will all have equity in Argo AI, not Ford as a whole, which means that equity will change in valuation based on the success of just that business.
Argo AI was founded in late 2016 by former Google and Uber employees in Pittsburgh. In stealth until today, the company is now actively recruiting for its engineering hubs in southeastern Michigan and the Bay Area, with the goal of having 200 employees by the end of the year.
"We are at an inflection point in using artificial intelligence in a wide rage of applications, and the successful deployment of self-driving cars will fundamentally change how people and goods move," says Bryan Salesky, cofounder and CEO of Argo AI. "We are energized by Ford’s commitment and vision for the future of mobility, and we believe this partnership will enable self-driving cars to be commercialized and deployed at scale."
He says the company understood early on that it would need to partner with a larger entity. With Ford, it will be able to move with the speed of a startup, but also have the funds and strength of a larger company, something that it will be able to use not only for R&D but also to help retain top talent.
With the partnership, a number of Ford employees will also become Argo AI employees.