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Ford Looks to AI, Biomimicry Solutions to Stay Ahead of the Curve
February 21, 2017
Two new announcements from Ford highlight how the auto and mobility company is harnessing technology to get ahead.
With ambitious plans to launch an autonomous vehicle in 2021, Ford has announced that it is investing $1 billion over the next five years in Argo AI, an artificial intelligence company founded by former Google and Uber leaders, to develop a virtual driver system.
Argo AI founders Bryan Salesky, company CEO, and Peter Rander, COO, — both of whom have worked on self-driving car teams at Google and Uber — have brought together a team of some of the most experienced roboticists and engineers in the industry to develop the new system for Ford’s SAE level 4 self-driving vehicles.
“The next decade will be defined by the automation of the automobile, and autonomous vehicles will have as significant an impact on society as Ford’s moving assembly line did 100 years ago,” said Ford President and CEO Mark Fields. “As Ford expands to be an auto and a mobility company, 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 near term and by creating technology that could be licensed to others in the future.”
Ford will continue to lead on development of its purpose-built autonomous vehicle hardware platform, as well as on systems integration, manufacturing, exterior and interior design, and regulatory policy management.
“We are 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,” said Salesky. “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 to extend affordable mobility to all.”
“Working together with Argo AI gives Ford a distinct competitive advantage at the intersection of the automotive and technology industries,” added Raj Nair, Ford Executive Vice President, Global Product Development, and Chief Technical Officer. “This open collaboration is unlike any other partnership — allowing us to benefit from combining the speed of a startup with Ford’s strengths in scaling technology, systems integration and vehicle design.”
Also complementing the relationship will be Ford Smart Mobility LLC, which lead on the commercialization strategy for Ford’s self-driving vehicles. This includes choices for using autonomous vehicles to move goods and people, such as ride sharing, ride hailing or package delivery fleets.
Ford will be the majority stakeholder in Argo AI. Importantly, Argo AI has been structured to operate with substantial independence. Its employees will have significant equity participation in the company, enabling them to share in its success. Argo AI’s board will have five members: Nair; John Casesa, Ford Group Vice President, Global Strategy; Salesky, Rander; and an independent director.
The $1 billion investment in Argo AI will be made over five years and is consistent with the autonomous vehicle capital allocation plan shared last September as part of Ford Investor Day. 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 Southeastern Michigan and the Bay Area of California.
Argo AI’s initial focus will be to support Ford’s autonomous vehicle development and production. In the future, Argo AI could license its technology to other companies and sectors looking for autonomous capability.
AI isn’t the only area Ford is dabbling in — the automaker has applied biomimicry principles to the design of its all-new EcoSport. Drawing inspiration from honeybees, the company has developed a recycled paper honeycomb material that gives the cargo area of the EcoSport exceptional strength.
“The hexagonal design of honeycomb is a testament to nature’s ingenuity,” said Mike Mazzella, Ford EcoSport assistant chief engineer. “Not only is it strong, it’s superlight. Customers can slide the shelf into multiple different slots like an oven rack; even store it on the back of the seats. It helps make EcoSport super-flexible in everyday use.”
Resin-reinforced honeycomb has a phenomenal strength-to-weight ratio. Though only a mere six pounds, the shelf can handle nearly 700 pounds across a 38.5-inch by 25.25-inch surface, presenting an innumerable combination of heavy items, like five bags of concrete mix (94 pounds each), four large bags of top soil (40 pounds each) and eight individual gallons of water (just a little more than eight pounds each).
For years, honeycomb has been used to create the strong structure under the skins employed in high-end sporting equipment like skis and aerospace frames. To create the adjustable floorboard for the Ford EcoSport, a layer of hexagon-shaped cells made of 100 percent recycled paper and water-based glue is sandwiched between two layers of composite material. It’s able to hold more than 100 times its six-pound weight in cargo.