Weekly Brief: Ford to invest $1Bn in self-driving start-up

Ford is pumping a billion bucks into an ARGO AI which doesn’t even have a website yet. What’s its thinking? Andrew Tolve reports.

Last month Peter Rander, the former head of Uber’s self-driving car programme, and Bryan Salesky, a veteran of Google’s self-driving car programme, sat down and decided to launch a start-up dedicated to building the best virtual driver system on the planet. Last Friday, Ford acquired a majority stake in their business for $1Bn (£800M). Not bad for a couple weeks’ work.

Of course, the real purchase here is not what ARGO AI has created to date — the company doesn’t even have a website yet, let alone a polished product — but its talent. Last year Ford set out the ambitious goal to have a vast fleet of fully self-driving vehicles on the road by 2021. Other carmakers have more accelerated dates but none of them have committed to SAE Level 4, fully autonomous cars without driving wheels or brake pedals, the way Ford has.

Ford had previously stated that they had all the engineering chops they needed in-house in their robotics unit to pull it off. The ARGO AI investment would suggest otherwise. As per the agreement, ARGO AI will continue to work independently from Ford and will be able to sell its technology to other carmakers and tech companies in the future. By the end of this year, Argo AI expects to have more than 200 team members, based in the company’s Pittsburgh headquarters and at major sites in south eastern Michigan and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Ford will make its investment over five years. Last year General Motors announced a similar billion-dollar investment in start-up Cruise Automotive.

In other news, 2017 is shaping up to be the year that electric vehicle charging stations go mainstream. The latest news is that five of the largest European fast charging networks have joined forces to create the Open Fast Charging Alliance. The goal is to create bilateral roaming agreements between the networks to make long-distance travel easier for EV owners throughout Europe. Founding members include Fastned (The Netherlands), Sodetrel (France), Smatrics (Austria), Grønn Kontakt (Norway) and GOtthard FASTcharge (Switzerland).

Two weeks ago Shell revealed that it was planning to integrate charging stations in many of its gas stations in Britain and the Netherlands. Total announced last week that it is planning to do the same at stations across France. And last month BMW and Nissan partnered to expand the DC fast charger network across the US.     

Speaking of cross-border collaboration, Germany and France are partnering to ensure that self-driving cars can navigate the challenges of crossing country borders, where speed limits, traffic laws and vehicle-to-infrastructure technology all may change. The two countries will run a pilot on a 70km (43 miles) stretch from Metz in France to Merzig in Germany. Carmakers and tech companies will be able to test how their self-driving cars respond to the changing conditions. Germany’s Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure has earmarked €100 (£85M) for the project.

Several years ago British car insurers were the first to commission research into how to handle the quandary of insuring self-driving vehicles. Last year British insurer Adrian Flux became the first insurer in the world to offer a personal driverless car insurance policy.Now Chris Grayling,Britain’s Transport Minister, has announced the UK is writing new rules to ensure that a single insurance policy will be able to cover both conventional and autonomous use of a vehicle. The rules will require that vehicle owners are not at fault if their vehicles get into accidents when an autonomous technology is engaged. Grayling says the new rules are imminent.

And, uh oh, there’s trouble brewing for electric vehicle start-up Faraday Future. The company that likes to fashion itself as the next Tesla announced that it’s reducing the size of a planned factory in Las Vegas, Nevada, by nearly 80% (from 3M square feet to 650,000 square feet) and is trimming back its planned product portfolio from seven vehicles to two. These will include the FF 91, one of the stars of the Consumer Electronics Show this year, and the FF 81, a crossover in a similar vein to the Tesla Model X.

Waze is expanding its carpooling service in California beyond the Bay Area. Waze Carpool will now be available in nine counties from Monterey up to Sacramento. Waze also revealed that it’s striking up more partnerships with specific businesses and institutions, in this case Kaiser Permanente hospitals and the University of California, to encourage their employees to drive together. Two things are interesting here: first, that Waze seems to be succeeding where Lyft failed with its Lyft Carpool feature, which it cancelled in August of last year; and second, that Waze’s parent company Google seems to be laying the networking groundwork for its self-driving car company Waymo.

Remember the good old days when you had to physically wind down your driver-side window? If Indian carmaker Mahindra has its way, all that will be required in the future is a simple tap of your finger against the pane of glass. The company was silent on how it plans to integrate touchscreen technology into a car window but it says that consumers can expect to see it previewed on a concept car in the coming year.

The Weekly Brief is a round-up of the week’s top telematics news, combining TU-Automotive analysis with information from industry sources.

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