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Ford self-driving car
An artist’s conception shows a Ford autonomous vehicle that has a heads-up display, but no steering wheel. (Ford via YouTube)

Ford Motor Co. says it’s investing $1 billion over the next five years in a Pittsburgh startup called Argo AI to develop the virtual-driver system for Ford’s autonomous vehicles.

Argo AI was founded only a few weeks ago by CEO Bryan Salesky, who directed hardware development for Google’s self-driving cars; and chief operating officer Peter Rander, who led Uber’s program to develop self-driving cars.

Salesky and Rander, as well as other Argo AI executives, have worked on robotics and AI at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, which helps explain the placement of the startup’s headquarters.

The technology coming out of the collaboration could be licensed to other companies, Ford President and CEO Mark Fields said today in a statement announcing the deal.

“We believe that investing in Argo AI will create significant value for our shareholders by strengthening Ford’s leadership in bringing self-driving vehicles to market in the near term and by creating technology that could be licensed to others in the future,” Fields said.

Ford and Argo AI executives
The executives behind the Ford-Argo deal include, from left, Argo AI COO Peter Rander, Ford CEO Mark Fields, Argo AI CEO Bryan Salesky and Raj Nair, Ford executive president for product development and chief technical officer. (Ford Photo)

Salesky said “we at an inflection point in using artificial intelligence in a wide range of applications, and the successful deployment of self-driving cars will fundamentally change how people and goods move.”

Argo AI says it expects to have more than 200 employees working at engineering hubs in Pittsburgh, the Detroit area and the San Francisco Bay Area by the end of this year.

Last year, Ford announced plans to develop a mass-production autonomous vehicle for ride-hailing and other commercial applications by 2021. It’s already deep into road testing for autonomous versions of its Ford Fusion Hybrid.

The cars that hit the streets in 2021 would be capable of SAE Level 4 autonomy, which means the virtual-driver software should be able to handle typical road conditions unassisted. In comparison, Tesla’s Autopilot software is regarded as somewhere around Level 2 or 3, although the company is shooting for Level 5 by 2018.

How the virtual driver works. Click on the image for a larger version. (Ford Infographic)

Today’s announcement serves as one more indication that the drive toward autonomous vehicles is shifting into a higher gear:

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