Ford Motor Co. is investing $1 billion over five years in a months-old startup with no other funders that was founded this winter by two pioneers in the nascent autonomous vehicle sector.
The Pittsburgh-based artificial intelligence company Argo AI will develop the brains -- specifically a virtual driver system -- for Ford’s autonomous vehicles, which the automaker has promised to bring to market in 2021. Founders Bryan Salesky and Peter Rander are former leaders of the self-driving car teams at Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Uber Technologies Inc.
“This is a unique partnership,” Mark Fields, Ford’s chief executive officer, said in an interview. “A lot of tech companies are looking for customers and a lot of OEMs are looking for technology partners. We are getting expertise, and Argo AI is getting a customer in Ford.”
Ford’s investment is another sign of how hot the race for autonomous vehicles has become within an industry facing other seismic shifts, including electrification, connectivity and ride-sharing. Self-driving vehicle startups are emerging at a frenetic pace after General Motors Co. and Uber valued upstarts -- each with just a few dozen employees -- as worth hundreds of millions of dollars in separate acquisitions last year.
Salesky worked on the self-driving car project at Google and Rander held a similar role at Uber. Argo AI will function as a subsidiary of Dearborn, Michigan-based Ford, though the startup will be independent and offer equity to engineers, said Raj Nair, Ford’s executive vice president of global product development and its chief technical officer.
Argo AI expects to have roughly 200 employees by the end of this year between its headquarters in Pittsburgh and offices in Southeast Michigan and the San Francisco Bay area. The company’s initial focus will be to support Ford’s autonomous vehicle development and production. The company could license its technology to other companies and sectors looking for autonomous capability in the future.
“When Pete and I decided to found the company, there were a lot of ways to try to fund it,” Salesky said in an interview. “We are excited about the long-term commitment of Ford and the straight timeline to market. We want to make 2021 a reality.”