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Argo AI: An Autonomous Future

By Nushrat Rahman

At six years old, Bryan Salesky grew up watching the self-driving supercar in “Knight Rider” and thought to himself: Why doesn’t this exist? Beyond the screen, visits to the North American International Auto Show in Detroit with his grandparents cemented a love for cars. Combine that with a software engineering and robotics background, support from top automakers, and today he’s working to answer his own question.

Salesky is the CEO of Argo AI, a Pittsburgh-based autonomous vehicle startup he co-founded in 2016 with fellow Michigan native Peter Rander, the company’s president and former engineering lead at Uber Advanced Technology Center. Argo AI has a mission to provide a safer, affordable, and accessible way for people to get around. This goal is backed by automotive giants.

In 2017, the company received a $1 billion investment from Ford Motor Company to develop a self-driving system for the automaker’s autonomous vehicle, set to launch next year. Last summer, Volkswagen AG announced a planned investment of $2.6 billion in the company.

Recently, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed executive orders to create a council for future mobility and electrification, establish the Michigan Office of Future Mobility, and appoint a chief mobility officer at the 2020 MICHauto Summit. She signed the orders on the hood of an Argo AI autonomous Ford Fusion Hybrid.

Setting Up in Detroit

In Detroit, Argo AI launched its third-generation self-driving test vehicle alongside other major cities in the country. The company now employs nearly 100 people in Southeast Michigan.

“It’s just a natural place for us to have an office,” says Salesky about the state. “We’re near all the businesses and supply chains that feed into what we do.”

Through his experience working in the automotive space, Salesky says he’s known for years how much talent is in Detroit.

In the mobility space, Argo AI is joined by other self-driving ventures including Google’s Waymo, Uber, GM’s Cruise, Tesla, and Ann Arbor-based May Mobility. Argo AI develops the self-driving system itself, which includes everything from software and hardware to cloud infrastructure, in order to power autonomous vehicles.

“My hope is that the technology kind of fades into the background and that we discover all these great ways to use this as a tool,” says Salesky.

Automakers, like Ford, come into the picture by collaborating to integrate this system into their vehicles so they can be manufactured at scale.

“What’s so important about our role at Ford is to build that trust and bring these vehicles to market and into people’s lives in a way that endears and engenders that trust element,” says John Lawler, CEO of Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC and vice president of Ford’s Mobility Partnerships.

Right now, the company is focused on developing the technology for shared fleets – and not necessarily personal use – for ride-hailing and goods delivery services.

Safety is Key

Autonomous driving technology is nascent and continually in progress, says Lawler. As with any new technology, there is a ramp-up curve where people get comfortable. There are still questions about the safety of self-driving technology, especially as vehicles are being tested on public streets.

Salesky says that safety is the top priority. Argo AI’s technology is still in the development phase, and specialists in test vehicles on public roads continuously monitor the system.

“By the time these vehicles will be deployed they will have gone through millions of simulations and tests,” he says, adding that the cars undergo test runs in various conditions, like weather, pedestrian patterns, traffic laws change, infrastructure, and more.

The idea is that self-driving cars will be more vigilant than human drivers, reducing traffic accidents. The future is promising, says Salesky. Argo AI envisions less urban congestion, reduced parking hassles, and an opportunity for underserved communities to have more transportation access.

“There [are] various areas that are underserved in our cities today where autonomous vehicles would provide choice and flexibility,” says Lawler. It would allow individuals to move in different ways than they do today.

For now, Salesky says the company is continuing to test and mature operations. While Americans won’t have self-driving cars in their driveways anytime soon, autonomous technology is continuously refined every day.

“We’re not trying to take away anyone’s right to drive,” says Salesky. “We’re providing people a choice; we’re giving them an alternative mode of transportation.”

Nushrat Rahman is a journalist from Detroit.