Car Wars: Ford Adds Billion Dollar Investment Acquisition to its AI

Ford has just invested $1 billion in a startup called Argo AI that will operate as a subsidiary, focusing upon autonomous vehicles and AI. With the wave of mergers and acquisitions in the AI area recently, this should come as no surprise. Autonomous vehicles represent the cutting edge of a number of AI and machine learning technologies. We have considered the problem of autonomy in several blogs (Autonomy INFOGRAPHIC, Challenges of Autonomy: The Video, Autonomous Social Robots: The Video). In the automobile and transportation sector, autonomous technologies are particularly aggressive and well-funded.

Argo AI’s brief, as stated on the startup website:

We founded Argo AI to tackle one of the most challenging applications in computer science, robotics and artificial intelligence — self-driving vehicles. While technology exists today to augment the human driver and automate the driving task up to a certain level of capability, replacing the human driver remains an extremely complex challenge. Advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning and computer vision are required to solve it. These technologies will eventually lead us to a new generation of the automobile — a vehicle that is connected, intelligent, and able to safely operate itself alone or as part of a shared fleet. The potential of these shared fleets of self-driving vehicles will be one of the most transformative advancements in this century.

It is a transformative vision that fits well with Ford’s recent moves, as well as with initiatives throughout the transportation industries.

In recent months we have seen Google spin off Waymo (it’s autonomous vehicle unit), GM tying up with IBM Watson; TomTom grabbing Autonomous, and Uber acquiring Geometric. In 2015, Uber acquired the entire robotics department of Carnegie Mellon. Noting that Argo AI draws upon personnel from Uber and Waymo, it is clear that the battle for AI talent, particularly in deep learning, is in full swing and is likely to have a continuing impact on how AI progresses even as skills become more widely available in the next few years..

Ford’s investment does have an interesting twist. In attempting to navigate the world of skills shortage, it has created Argo as a subsidiary with majority Ford ownership but the possibility of equity sharing with AI employees who come aboard. This could be attractive, to less well-known but proficient practitioners wishing to develop advanced skills in this area. The fact that Uber was able to hire away Carnegie’s AI team sent shock waves through the industry and caused many to reevaluate employment policies and skills acquisition. The numerous startups in this area demonstrate that providing equity is a good place to start.

Another issue in automotive AI acquisitions is the growing realization that autonomy will change the industry so profoundly that companies will need to completely re-tool their business models in order to survive. Ford has been making aggressive moves in this direction through other acquisitions.

In the company’s own words:

Ford invested in Velodyne, the Silicon Valley-based leader in LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) sensors, to move quickly towards mass production of a more affordable, automotive-grade LiDAR sensor… We’re acquiring SAIPS, a machine learning and artificial intelligence start-up based in Israel, which will play a key role in image and video processing, object detection, signal processing and deep learning capabilities to help autonomous vehicles learn and adapt to their surroundings.
We’re forming an exclusive licensing agreement with Nirenberg Neuroscience, founded by neuroscientist Dr. Sheila Nirenberg, who cracked the neural code that the eye uses to transmit visual information to the brain…
And we’re investing in Civil Maps, helping us develop 3D, high-resolution maps of our autonomous vehicles’ surroundings.
These four new partnerships build on a recent Ford investment in Pivotal, which is helping accelerate the software needed to support autonomous vehicles.
Plus, we’re working with a long list of universities around the world, including Stanford University, MIT, the University of Michigan and Aachen University in Germany.

That was from August. In the same announcement the company promised to have fully autonomous vehicles in commercial operation for a ride-sharing service beginning in 2021.

As we have pointed out before, Ford’s efforts are by no means unique. Every company remotely related to transportation is frantically trying to move in a similar direction, drawing from a very limited pool of talent having both the skills and the practical experience to spin up autonomy in its latest garb at the speed companies need to stay in this game.

Let the Car Wars begin! Seriously. It will vastly accelerate development and adoption of advanced AI and analytics technologies across every facet of business.


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